Mar 222018
 


For those who might not be aware, the European Union (EU) has a regulation known as EU261 which mandates that airlines pay you cash compensation for flights to/from Europe that suffer lengthy delays or cancelations. Basically the compensation ranges from 250 to 600 euros, based on the length of the delay and length of the flight. Longer flights (generally intercontinental) receive the higher payments as do ones with longer delays or cancelation.

Sound too good to be true? It isn’t really. I’ve had it paid multiple times. However, airlines being corporations they do devote a significant amount of time/energy to legally trying to worm out of paying you. Some airlines, however, are great about this. I thought I would outline some of my more memorable experiences, and seek your feedback on yours.

Blah, blah, I’m not a lawyer, this isn’t legal advice, and my experiences might not match yours.

Brussels Airlines: My very first experience with EU261 was with Brussels airlines. I had arrived in Brussels on an overnight redeye flight on United, connecting onto a Brussels Airlines flight to Cotonou, Benin. After about an hour of delays, the dreaded “cancelled” popped up on the gate monitor. Brussels was kind enough to send those of us in business class back to the lounge, and showed up shortly with hotel and meal vouchers. 24 hour delay, flight would go the next day. When we got to the gate next day, there was a pre-filled letter for us to add some details, and that was it. They actually encouraged us to apply for, and although it took nearly three months they did pay, the required 600 euros for this delay. WELL DONE!  GRADE: A

American Airlines: Long story short, my Chicago to London flight arrived late leaving me only 30 minutes to connect to Accra, Ghana on British Airways. While we were in flight, American had decided FOR ME that this wasn’t enough time, and rebooked me…the next day…IN COACH. As soon as the agent told me this in the jetway upon deplaning I decided to run for the gate. I made it with 100+ people still to board, but they had given away my seat and the flight was full. BA would do nothing. Fought with the American transfer desk for an hour before giving up and going to the lounge where an amazing agent took care of me. American corporate, however, refuses to pay EU compensation, arguing that I “wasn’t late” because my flight was on time. After nearly two years of arguing the best I got was a crummy $100 voucher. I tried appealing it through multiple firms, and none of them could get American to pay. FAILING GRADE, and a large part of why I won’t fly American unless necessary. GRADE: F

United Airlines: London to Washington Dulles, 4pm flight canceled. They offered me coach (I had been booked in first) in a middle seat 15 hours later…easily qualifying for 600 euros. United claimed they were not obligated to pay since they offered me economy within 3 hours. (False, since must be in the same class). They quickly, however, offered a $400 voucher with little argument. Given it was pretty easy to get and I knew I could use it, I took it. GRADE: C

TAP Portugal: Praia, Cape Verde to Lisbon to London to Washington DC. Similar to American above, my TAP flight arrived in Lisbon late, with only 30 minutes to connect. I didn’t find out until boarding my connection to London that they’d already given away my seat and “the computer won’t let us put you back on it.” Similar to American, TAP refused to pay compensation because “we offered you another option” which was in business class and not first. Round and round and never got a penny of of them. Yes, legally the case is air tight, but I’m not exactly about to file a case in Portuguese court for under $500. I have a chain of over 200 emails on this one, and nothing will get them to pay. GRADE:  F

SATA Air Azores: my Azores to Boston flight was cancelled, and I was put on one two hours later – not enough to qualify for compensation. However, delivering me to Boston late caused me to miss my connection to DC and arrive DC nearly eight hours late. Instead of paying the required 400 euros, SATA decided (in a chain of over 200 emails) to play lets make a deal. First they offered me a 100 euro voucher. Then 200. Then a free one-way ticket in business class anywhere they fly. After rejecting all their offers the finally offered a “goodwill payment” of only 300 euros. I decided to cut my losses at 200 emails and take it. Of course, when it appeared in my account they shorted me nearly 10% on the exchange rate, but at this point it was enough. So, I got 75% of what I was entitled to with a lot of pain….GRADE:  D+

Lufthansa: DC to Munich and then Cairo. Arrived in Munich right on time, departed Munich with a 3 hour 15 minute delay. Arrived at the gate in Cairo precisely 3 hours an 2 minutes late…but Lufthansa was crafty and listed the official arrival time as only 2:58 delayed. It took them a month to answer my email, but when they did all they asked for was my address and promptly cut me a check for the full 400 euros with no questions asked. I assume it will actually arrive.  GRADE: A+

Have you applied for EU261 compensation? Did you get it? How easy was it?

Mar 112018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 082018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oooh Singapore A350…sexy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 072018
 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 262018
 


Woke up in the morning, and saw the first two trains of the day to Frankfurt had already been canceled. This was an ominous sign. The weather definitely seemed better today, but the worst of the wind was supposedly quite a distance south. Oh well, we’ll see what the day brings!

Walked to the U-Bahn to head over to Starbucks, and the sidewalks were completely clear this morning. Definitely a huge improvement over the day before. There didn’t seem to be much wind, so I was pretty hopeful that my train would go as planned today. In order to get to Frankfurt with plenty of time to rest and relax in the evening, I had booked myself on the 13:30 train to Frankfurt so I could sleep in a bit as well as have plenty of time to get dinner in Frankfurt.

After Starbucks, same routine as the day before. A bit like Groundhog Day – back to the Westin to pack up, walked to the U-Bahn thanks to the clear sidewalks, train to Hauptbanhof, get to the platform…just in time to see the train delayed by 5 minutes. Then 10 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Then 20 minutes. Then 25 minutes, and then a phrase popped up on the board which I unfortunately added to my German vocabulary on this trip: “Zug fällt aus” – train canceled. Here we go again.

Rebooked myself via the app on the 14:30 train, which was at least kind enough to cancel on me 10 minutes before departure. This was getting frustrating. Ok, one last chance, I’m going to book myself on the 15:30 train, which was conveniently already delayed 30 minutes:

It was cold in the station, so I retreated to where else – Starbucks – for a nice warm coffee. I don’t know who this Justin character is, but I seemed to get his coffee an awful lot in Germany.

At this point I was getting a little nervous about getting to Frankfurt and potentially missing my flight home the next day. A quick check of the United app showed that the 20:00 Hamburg to Frankfurt flight had cheap award seats, so I booked one as a backup plan. It was a direct shot on the U-Bahn to the airport, so I decided if I didnt make it on the 17:30 train I would hightail it to the airport and figure out how to eventually refund my train ticket.

Fortunately, as predicted and only about 15 minutes later than the predicted time, there was much rejoicing on the platform. Surprisingly, the train was only about half full despite the seat map being completely full. I think lots of people had made several sets of backup plans.

Eventually we left, which called for a celebratory beer. Who know it would be so hard to catch a train!

Other than that, it was pretty uneventful. We didn’t make up much time, and by the time I got to Frankfurt it was almost 20:00. I was tempted to stay in and call it a night, but then I remembered I could sleep the entire flight back the next day if I really wanted. So, off to Naïv for some beer and tasty flatbread!

Finished off with a nice heavy Imperial Stout as an Auf Wiedersehen to Germany!

All in all, things worked out fine. I was really looking forward to the full day I was supposed to have in Frankfurt to head down to the Technik Museum in Sinsheim to see the Tupolev and Concorde as well as the Technik Museum in Speyer to see the Space Shuttle Buran, but I guess that will have to wait for a future trip. At least it’s a relatively easy trip from Frankfurt.

Perhaps next time, I’ll do a different loop from Frankfurt for a week, taking in some of the south and east of the country, maybe including Hannover, Bremen Köln, Stuttgart, and Munich….food for thought.

But for now, it’s time for the flight home in Lufthansa First!

Feb 102018
 


One thing I like about flying to Europe out of DCA is that it requires a connection, which means any thoughts of going into the office are unrealistic. Got a bit of work done from home, had plenty of coffee, and despite sleeping in managed a very leisurely stroll to DCA to catch my initial flight to Chicago in order to get this thing started!

My favourite part of DCA is the old Continental President’s Club, which has become the United Club. The grand ceiling of the main room, and now that there’s the smaller “hidden” room in back it doesn’t feel quite so crowded. Of course, had to start the trip with a little “caviar” – United style:

Decided against all that corn and beans since I’d be spending the next 12+ hours on planes, I opted instead for some cheese cubes…and some pepper strips to get some vitamins:

I had noted on the seatmap that despite first class being full, economy was only booked to about 30 people – completely empty! I considered moving back and taking a whole row to have a little more space, but decided not to risk it with snacks and drinks.

United flight 1264
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 11:45, Arrive 12:56, Flight Time: 2:11
Airbus A319, Registration N892UA, Manufactured 2006, Seat 2E
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 612
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,520,674

Interesting options in the snack basket today, so I opted for the fat free, gluten free, low sodium, low taste gummi bears knowing I would get much much better ones in a few days in Germany.

Beyond that, it was a typical, boring short domestic flight so I’ll skip right ahead to why I chose the flight with the 3.5 hour connection in Chicago: to give the Polaris Lounge one more try. This also had the benefit that if there were to be any winter weather surprises, I was leaving myself plenty of cushion before my international flight. No worries today, and we actually arrived Chicago a little bit early, so off from the B terminal to the C terminal to enjoy the Polaris Lounge.

First impression: the lounge was as empty as I’ve ever seen it, which always helps to make a more positive impression. It did fill up quite a bit by the time I left, but initially it was empty. Glass of Veuve Cliquot at the bar to start things off while I finished up a bit of work.

Headed over to the new dining area from there, which is much nicer and more “private” than the previous area. My only small complaint would be that the staff were more “midwest friendly” than refined, which maybe isn’t the best thing in a premium lounge. It isn’t a complaint, just a bit out of line with the experience they’re trying to project. Now, serious, not complaining….when they say things like “I just figured you would have finished your champagne by now so I brought you another!”

The seared tuna tataki was good, with a nice presentation…and the perfect light starter with a big Lufthansa meal coming up:

I had heard many good things about the Blue Door Kitchen Burger, so decided to order it – fried egg and all, and promised myself I’d only have a few bites to try it. It was pretty good, and ended up finishing a bit over half before heading back to the bar to do some pre-flight work so I could hopefully relax and enjoy the vacation a bit more!

Nice chat about the “paper plane” cocktail with the lounge manager, who’s actually been sitting at the bar just about every time I visit the lounge doing some paperwork.

After a nice visit, back through the psychedelic tunnel to the B gates to find my Lufthansa flight. Overall impression of the Polaris Lounge? Blows away anything else in the United States with the possible exception of the JFK American Flagship Lounge. It will be very interesting when (and if) United finishes more Polaris Lounges if they manage to replicate this very high standard.

Long line to board when I went to the gate, and the business class line was super long as well, so I just walked up to the counter, mentioned to the gate agent that I was in first, and was invited to board immediately so I didn’t have to stand in line. Very nice touch by the gate crew.

Lufthansa flight 431
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 16:20, Arrive 7:40 next day, Flight Time: 8:20
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYK, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 4,956
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,525,018

My seat was already set up when I boarded, and champagne and nuts made a very quick appearance. I was the only person in first today, and I had a very “old school” crew who did everything by the book and provided a first class experience that was over the top from a service perspective…without being awkward and “too much.” I’m seriously curious what kind of “notes” Lufthansa keeps on their passengers. Despite never having flown with this crew before, they knew several personal touches that they never would have without someone having told them (or read this blog maybe.)

Immediately after posting the above pic to Instagram and Twitter, Lufthansa (always on top of their social media game) was quick to reply:

I sort of find it comical that Lufthansa social media knows me well enough that they dare reply with Beyoncé memes. As I was the only one in first today, the crew had already made up the seat across from me as a bed for when I was ready for it later inflight. The gate agents did upgrade someone from business at the last minute, but I heard them telling the crew “he will just sleep and doesn’t need any service. We just want him to have a private bed.” I don’t know who he was that he got this treatment, but to the crew’s credit I never would have known he was there.

I forget what the amuse bouche was, but I remember it was tasty…

Since I wanted to try and convince myself to be sleepy, I told the crew they could turn the cabin lights dark from the start of the flight so the other guy could sleep. Apologies on the slightly dark pictures because of it. Tonight was an “all the caviar you want” flight, so I just asked for a medium portion. I was more in a sampling mood, and the main course sounded excellent…

Next up were appetizers and salad: herb shrimp with fennel salad and tomato oregano dressing, buffalo style chicken, celery with gorgonzola mousseline and farro salad, and chilled ratatouille parcel with balsamic glaze. Overall, mostly a miss unfortunately. The buffalo chicken was tasty, but the rest “tried too hard” and just wasn’t great.

Finished maybe half the appetizers, which were followed by an amazing bowl of lobster bisque. I think this was intended to be a main course, but with no other passengers, the crew insisted:

Next up, far and away the best airline main course I’ve ever had. Grilled beef filet (a perfect medium) and lobster claw served with mac and cheese. The mac and cheese was just a little spicy, the asparagus was perfectly cooked, and the whole thing was a home run!

Last but not least, a helping of cheese. I was stuffed by this point, but couldn’t turn the cheese down. Good selection:

After clearing the table, the flight attendant serving first offered “can I get you a Johnny Walker Blue, one ice cube as a night cap?” Again, no idea how he would have known that unless he reads this blog or Lufthansa keeps records on their first class episodes.

One quick check of email before calling it a night, and facebook suggested the following filter for a goofy selfie. I think they know what I was up to….

Slept nearly five hours, woke up just in time for some tea and freshening up before landing, and it was time to enjoy some time in the First Class Terminal before my connecting flights.

Jun 112017
 

There was something refreshing about being able to head out at 10p on a Sunday for a work trip instead of leaving on a Friday or Saturday and losing an entire weekend. I was actually able to enjoy my weekend, and only head out to the airport around 7pm to catch my flight to Frankfurt. Only one small problem: I was on a J fare, and while my United upgrade to first cleared at the time of booking, Lufthansa was still holding me on the waitlist to Almaty despite first only being booked to three of eight seats. It looked like I wouldn’t find out my fate until I got to Frankfurt. That said, Frankfurt to Almaty (via Astana) was a daytime flight, and with a 2-2-2 configuration in business it was questionable if it was even worth the upgrade.

This was my first time flying United out of Dulles in about six months, and it was rather pathetic to see how United has completely given up on their first product. Premium check-in is tucked away, and there’s no separate check-in for first anymore. Even worse, the agent I spoke to didn’t know there was a difference! “We just have Polaris class now.” Sigh, it just gets worse and worse. It’s to the point I’ve already more than doubled my premier qualifying dollars, have hit the miles, but still don’t have my required four segments on United. Sigh. They still have the best frequent flier program in Star Alliance, however.

Fast forward to the terminal, and my first task was to find some new headphones. I had left mine somewhere on a recent trip, and had forgotten to order new ones, and by the time I realized it it was mid-day Saturday and I didn’t know anywhere good in my ‘hood to buy them. So Dulles it would be.

After getting to the C terminal on the walk to the Global First lounge, I came across one of those Best Buy vending machines I’ve seen the past couple years. I was intrigued by the novelty, and picked up some wired Beats earbuds from the machine. A few weeks later, and I have to say: they’re really good quality and I’m thrilled with my purchase!

Got to the Global First lounge, which was absolutely packed. It’s my understanding they pretty much let all Global Services members in business class in now, and it was the most crowded I’ve ever seen it. High quality self-service bubbles as always, but what passes for cheese these days is absolutely pathetic. The quality of this club is now firmly below the Chicago Polaris lounge. Next time, I’ll actually go to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge in the B Terminal.

Wait for the flight was uneventful, and soon it was time to board.

United flight 932
Washington DC, Dulles (IAD) to Frankfurt, Germany (FRA)
Depart 22:00, Arrive 12:10 next day, Flight Time: 8:10
Boeing 777-200, Registration N219UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 45,736
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,422,613

Shockingly, United First had been booked to eight of eight a full two weeks before this flight. Either they gave away lots of upgrades and awards well in advance, or they actually managed to sell some first fares. Either way, in years of flying United I’ve never seen first sold out on a Europe route before the day of flight.

Nothing says first class like welcome aboard sparking wine in a plastic bottle served in a plastic flute. I know some people actually consider this aspect of “Polaris” charming, but to me it’s charming in the same way that a Costco hotdog is better than cooking a hotdog at home. You can put cheap lipstick on a pig, but this says “no class” way more than “first class.”

Best part of Polaris: the gel cooling pillow. This proactive crew passed them out to the eight passengers in first, and were soon heard telling the passengers behind us in business there were none left. United corporate may be failing to protect United First, but this crew was spot on.

Soon after takeoff the ramekin of warm nuts arrived, complete with a skewered olive, mozzarella, and tomato. I guess its better than just nuts?

“Seared tuna, kale salad with apple and red quinoa, wasabi paste” – while the tuna looked appetizing it was absolutely flavourless, and the wasabi paste looked more like a baby turd. While better than some of United’s previous attempts at a business appetizer (like the single skewered prawn I got once) it still fell way short.

Carrot ginger bisque soup. Giving credit where credit is due, this was perfectly seasoned and actually delicious.

Salad of cabbage, bok choy, carrot, mango. Just…no. Who needs that much raw cabbage in flight. Nothing says first class like cheap shredded cabbage. Since they’re in this picture, I will note, I love the golf ball salt and pepper shakers in Polaris. Also in this picture which I hate: first class service ON A TRAY.

“Seared short rib” with barbecue sauce, basmati rice, carrot, sugar snap peas. I showed this to a friend who agreed the radioactive red colour of the short rib was rather terrifying. Fortunately, it tasted much better than it looked. I normally hate fattier cuts of beef, but something about United’s short rib gets me every time.

Sigh. What United calls a cheese plate. I might have been impressed if not for what you will see later in this post…

Remember when United served ice cream sundaes? Sure, it’s extremely simple, but sometimes it’s nice to have something simple that reminds you of being a kid. Unfortunately, the fancy new Polaris ice cream sundae dishes seem to have a habit of shattering and putting glass shards in peoples’ mouths, so United has replaced the ice cream sundae with cheap mango sorbet in a cardboard container. Gross.

The mini apple pie and chocolate/nut bar were fairly tasty, to be fair.

Nothing more to say about this flight. I chose the flight for three reasons, and United delivered on all three: the late 10pm departure time, a nice cool cabin for sleeping, and generous pours of red wine which enabled nearly six hours of uninterrupted sleep on the way to Frankfurt. Sleep was so good, actually, that I was out cold until 10 minutes before landing. I had ensured the crew 10 minutes would be enough to bring me to life, and they kindly obliged. I feel the need to mention again this crew was fantastic, and it’s sad United didn’t give them more to work with and be proud of.

On the taxi in Frankfurt, an Uzbekistan 767 which I am very excited to be booked on in a couple of weeks:

Upon landing, I pulled up my reservation on Lufthansa’s app, and something had changed. The waitlisted segment had gone away and it looked like it was confirmed it first, but it was really hard to tell. So, I just headed to the first class lounge, and pretended that all was right. The agent was puzzled, and gave me the “but you are booked in business class.” I told them the app told me the upgrade was confirmed, and when they checked a bit more “yes, the gate JUST processed it. Please come in and enjoy.”

Quick shower, where of course I picked up another Saunaente before enjoying a double espresso and glass of bubbles for “breakfast.”

Fortunately for me, my flight today would be departing from a bus gate, meaning I got a ride to the plane. They may have waited until the very last minute to confirm me, but I was going to get the full Lufthansa First service today. Let’s see how it compares to the Untied flight I just came off of.

Lufthansa flight 646
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE)
Depart 13:20, Arrive 22:55, Flight Time: 5:35
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 48,422
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,299

Wow…champagne…and it’s with classy nuts, not in a plastic flute, and I get a rose. I love the little classy touches on Lufthansa.

My ride to the plane…one of the things I love about Lufthansa.

Beef tartar amuse bouche. A bit risqué for an inflight meal, but super tasty with a little creme fraiche.

It may not be the highest quality caviar, but there is something simply elegant about Lufthansa’s caviar service which I love. Plus, they always give me an extra generous helping.

Lufthansa does an appetizer trio, and I admit that usually at least one of the appetizers is a little funky. Today was veal with turnip salad and wild garlic sour cream (super tasty), pomegranate couscous with feta and cashew nuts (also tasty), and the odd prawn cocktail. Odd because it was a single prawn with a creamy sauce that I understand is a german thing. Regardless, compare this (with caviar) with the tuna nightmare United served me, and you can do the maths.

Salad…it’s hard to be too fabulous with salad, and this was just ok. Mixed leaf lettuce with sauteed mushrooms, tomatoes and pumpkin seeds.

Now, I admit I don’t normally think of this as a main course, but when it is Spargelsaison in Germany you can’t pass on the white asparagus entree. I’ve had this a few times now, and I won’t lie – I’ll book trips in May just to have it again. The hollandaise sauce is the perfect accompaniment and the side of smoked turkey breast and cecina de vacuno added just enough protein to make it worth it.

See the United cheese plate above. See the entire Lufthansa cheese CART below. I don’t think anyone does a cheese course like Lufthansa does.

The only reason the plate below is small is because I was stuffed. A couple of the cheeses were wonderful and I would have liked more for sure.

a bit unusual, but delicious: melon strawberry gazpacho with sour cream ice cream. It was so good I asked for more later in the flight, but alas it had all been eaten.

To finish it off, a delicious double espresso with chocolate.

After a few hours of working, I was offered a mezze plate and pretzel before landing in Astana for our brief stopover. Accompanied with another double espresso and some Johnny Walker Blue of course.

Since there was no more gazpacho, it was insisted that I have the tahiti vanilla ice cream with warm cherries. I love cherries, and these were nice and sour and perfectly delicious. Two for two with the desserts tonight. Sure beats pre-packaged mango sorbet!

When we landed in Astana, 90% of the passengers got off. This was quite in contrast to my last time on this flight maybe six months ago when almost everyone was going to Almaty. Today, it would be just me in first class, three people in business class, and according to the crew maybe 40 in economy.

Lufthansa flight 646
Astana, Kazakhstan (TSE) to Almaty, Kazakhstan (ALA)
Depart 23:45, Arrive 01:30 next day, Flight Time: 1:45
Airbus A330-300, Registration D-AIKP, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 49,013
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,425,890

I was offered a snack of some sad sandwiches on the segment, but opted to just relax and have a couple of Johnny Walker Blues before landing. Watched some more tv, and before I knew it another fabulous flight in Lufthansa First was unfortunately over. Now, time to get to Kazakhstan and get to work!

Apr 032017
 

I don’t usually get too excited for flights, especially when they mean getting up early, but the combination of my room being slightly warm along with my upcoming flight on my favourite product had me up even before I needed to be.

Walked over to the B terminal of the airport, and stopped at Starbucks for a bit of caffeine to get me motivated for the long day ahead. Back to the Sheraton, packed, checked out, and then did the brisk 10 minute outdoor walk to the First Class Terminal. They’re definitely not used to people arriving on foot, but were excellent about checking me in and getting me sorted out.

The lounge was actually rather busy for 8am, and I got the last table in the dining area. I’ve never been here hungry before (usually coming off a redeye) so was nice to be ready to tear into some serious breakfast. Nice table setting to start:L

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This morning’s breakfast menu:

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I decided to go for the eggs benedict and a fresh orange juice. The eggs were actually really good, with just right amount of hollandaise sauce which was just the right tartness. Once again, Lufthansa delivers in my book.

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Now, I may not be Madonna who is rumoured to require Voss water to take her baths in, but I was pretty impressed that the First Class Terminal also has a water menu, which somehow I’ve never noticed on prior trips. Voss for me today!

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Spent a nice 90 minutes in the lounge today, before being told the car was ready to take me to the plane. Unfortunately, there were five of us in the lounge all going to the same plane, so we were packed into one car for the ride. How uncivilized! 😉 But seriously, it’s still a special feeling being driven around the tarmac for a bit before parking right next to your plane:

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There was a long queue in the jetbridge after we took the elevator up, and the driver was having absolutely none of it. “Entschuldigung, bitte!” all the way down, pushing his way passed all the queued up passengers to get on board first. It was on the verge of mildly embarrassing, but at the same time a bit fun to be treated like a celebrity.

Lufthansa flight 430
Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) to Chicago O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 10:40, Arrive 13:10, Flight Time: 9:30
Boeing 747-8i, Registration D-ABYG, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 31,507
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,395,908

Good to see after my last couple of flights that the macadamia nuts are back, and the champagne remains cold!

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After takeoff, an amuse-bouche of tomato gelatin, a mini tomato, mozzarella, pesto, and a crostini:

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Clearly, Lufthansa has gotten the message that I enjoy my caviar. Despite being booked six of eight in first today, the portion took up half of the plate! I should start traveling with my own bread crumb scraper…I clearly make a mess!

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Today’s appetizers were tasty, but not mind-blowing.  Tuna with Caper and Veal Sauce, accompanied by green Asparagus.  Quail Egg and Black Salsify Salad presented with Bolzano Sauce (this one was super tasty), and Grilled Vegetable Terrine, Chive Curd and air-dried Beef.

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I liked how they did the salad after the apps…more courses, and extended things a bit more. The passion fruit dressing, as usual, was weird. One thing I don’t like about Lufthansa is how the feel the need to try funky dressings. Of course, maybe I should be thanking them for broadening my horizons…who knows.

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Went with the sous-vide prime boiled veal with red hot pepper mostarda, root vegetables, and parsley potatoes. Honestly, it wasn’t that good. The veal was flavourless, and the whole thing tasted like something out of a 1970s British cookbook. Boiled and bland.

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But not all was lost…cheese was on the way, and delicious as always. How can you not love a cheese cart like this when everyone else serves you dried out pre-plated crap. Rock salt cheese, St. Agur, Goat Cheese with Honey, L’Explorateur and Langres.

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Gorgeous cheese course. I’m not sure anyone does it quite like Lufthansa.

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My usually Johnny Walker Blue and a couple of chocolates to finish things off. No room for a full dessert today.

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After eating, I was stuffed and tired from being up early, so I shut the window shades to catch some zzzzzs. Rose, silhouetted by the one light…

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After four solid hours of sleep, I woke up just in time for the pre-landing snack. The new snack/landing menu are the same, and you just order from it as you please during the flight. I went with the Italian Spuntino plate with melon and ham skewer, bresaola with creem cheese, guinea fowl confit, arugula veal roll, and parmesan cheese and tomato olive tepanade. Definitely a winner for a second meal. Plus…pretzel bread!

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She insisted I also needed some greens, so I agreed to a salad with chicken as well.

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…and some sweets to finish it off. Not because I wanted them, because she insisted. They were, of course, delicious.

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Once again, a fantastic Lufthansa experience. The food today wasn’t exactly my thing for a few of the courses, but the fantastic service more than made up for it. Unlike lots of other folks, I actually find the Lufthansa seat great for relaxing and sleeping, although it is slightly lacking in the privacy front. I feel like they do classy in a great way that is refined and attention to detail without being at all pretentious. I won’t claim it’s the “best” product in the skies, but is probably the one that meshes best with my personality.

Upon landing, I was worried that once again the Global Entry machines would declare me persona non-grata since I was on a one-way ticket from Egypt. I’ve had very unpleasant experiences with this in the past, so really wasn’t looking forward to what might await me. This time, however, no problems at all and I was through immigration in maybe five minutes and on the way to my connecting flight.

Monorail over to the United gates, not too bad of a line at TSA PreCheck for once, and a quick stop at Starbucks for some caffeine. The wait at Starbucks was much longer than TSA (ugh!) but soon I had my caffeine and was ready to struggle through the last leg home.

United flight 622
Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to Washington DC, National (DCA)
Depart 16:00, Arrive 18:55, Flight Time: 1:55
Boeing 737-800, Registration N33266, Manufactured 2001, Seat 3B
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 33,119
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,396,520

What can I say. Generic non-meal United flight so not much to report on. Was too full to attack the snack basket, so had a super uneventful flight.

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With that, another great trip came to a close! Now, what next…

Feb 112017
 

Well, yes, but before we start, I have to acknowledge some things. Work was crazy the last week, and I was putting in 16 hour days to have any chance of pulling this trip off. At the last minute, thanks to supportive management and coworkers, I was in a place to actually consider this trip as long as I could put in a few hours each day remotely. But then, I started thinking…a trip like this isn’t easy. It’s a lot of time on planes (even in first) and it’s stressful on the body. Plus, didn’t I say I would travel less after I hit every country?

This is when I was reminded I have amazing friends. I leaned on a handful of friends pretty hard to talk through it, and ironically they all ended with the same advice: whichever decision you make, to stay or go, you won’t regret it. Just do what feels right. So, when a decision is 50-50, there’s only one way to decide… Sacajawea I stay, Tails I fly I away…

With that, I flipped it across the room at 3:30 am… (yes, I’d been torn on this decision up until the very last moment)

Tails. I go. Better hurry up and pack and get to the airport. No sleep for me tonight!

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Got to DCA about 45 minutes before the flight, no wait for security, so time for a quick “breakfast” in the United Club. Check out the napkin, guess they know where I’m going:

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Time to board!

United Express flight 3637, operated by Republic
Washington DC National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 6:00, Arrive 7:20, Flight Time: 2:20
Embraer ERJ-175, Registration N731YX, Manufactured 2015, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 612
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,365,013

Pre-departure beverage. Anything was on offer, water was all I wanted. Gotta pace myself.

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In flight snack basket. Diet Coke and Caramello Latte biscotti – not complainign, I’m addicted to these things.

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Landed O’Hare a few minutes early, and having been up all night needed more caffeine. Of course, they got my name wrong again.

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Made it to the United Polaris Lounge, and they now have a cooked to order menu. Veuve Cliquot and eggs benny. Life is good.

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Because once you start you can’t stop, the Latin American Paper Plane cocktail. Talked to the lounge manager, and the mini paper planes that usually get clipped to the rim he orders from some lady on pinterest, and apparently she can’t make them as fast as he needs them.

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Veuve and ambiance.

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Hallway to the showers and washrooms – I like the “stars” on the ceiling.

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Then, it was time for today’s main show. First of many, many flights in first this trip.

ANA All Nippon flight 11
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Tokyo, Narita (NRT)
Depart 10:45, Arrive 15:10 next day, Flight Time: 13:25
Boeing 777-300ER, Registration JA731A, Manufactured 2004, Seat 2K
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 6,886
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,371,287

My suite for the 12+ hours to Tokyo. The only downside is that it blocks the windows, making it a little hard to look out if you’re not super tall:

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Long trip, trying to minimize luggage and washing clothes, so looking excited in my ANA PJs. Super comfy!

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The post-takeoff Krug has arrived

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Amuse bouche of smoked salmon and scallop tartar in bouchée pie, pumpkin gnocchi with cheese sauce, risotto wrapped in roast beer, and cheese pepper bar. The roast beef was especially tasty.

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Mushroom bavarois with caviar and cauliflower soup. Sad to see they cut back on on the caviar.

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Beautiful presentation, however.

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Salad with bacon and more Krug? Don’t mind if I do!

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Fillet of beef with shallot cream, escargot sauce. Yup, I risked the beef.

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A perfect medium to medium-rare. Best cooked steak I’ve ever had on a plane.

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Cheese! Gorgonzola, camebert, piave vecchio with a glass of Petaluma Shiraz.

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Warm hazelnut bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. It was delicious.

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Post-dinner chocolates and a glass of Hibiki 21 Japanese whiskey. It was amazing….

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Eventually, staying up all night the night before caught up with me, and I passed out. For eight solid hours. It was glorious.

Not five minutes later, there was hot tea waiting for me.

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Snack time! But first…more Krug!

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Japanese set snack. Kobachi (deep-friend scallop with grated daikon radish sauce), Shusai (Saikyo miso-grilled Spanish mackerel), steamed rice, miso soup, and Japanese pickles. She offered me Natto (fermented soybeans) and I wasn’t going to play the weak westerner so I went for it. Taste was just ok, but they were sticky and gluey, and really hard to eat!

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“This is special shellfish for help digest the alcohol.” What are you saying here…

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More cheese was found to finish it off….along with a glass of shiraz.

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The perfect ending – vanilla and caramel ice cream and a few glasses of the Hibiki whiskey. It was amazing.

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Facebook filters show just how enjoyable the Hibiki was…

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Landed 10 minutes early after a suburb flight. Our gate was right next to transfer security, and right next to the ANA Suites lounges. Can’t get much better than that, after my 1000 meter dash across the same airport in December. View from the lounge:

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After a shower I felt amazing, and it was time to continue the trip. ANA hit a home run in all areas pretty much, and can’t wait for the chance to fly them again. At the end of the trip, I’ll post a side-by-side comparison of all the first products.

Jul 092016
 

So…I should preface this whole entry by saying that lots and lots of things on this trip didn’t go as planned. Actually, since I’m still in the middle of the trip, who knows what else will change. Originally, it was to be a trip to Turkmenistan to hit country #195 and then a stop in Crimea on the way home (because, hey, why not). Then things got weird. Really weird. But I think suffice to say I’ll just let it unfold segment by segment.

Originally, the plan was to fly DC to Dubai and then pick up a flight with FlyDubai to Ashgabad. Simple and straightforward. I had a booking DC-Zurich-Dubai on an award ticket in United First and Swiss business. Then, about 12 days before departure, Lufthansa first opened up…but not out of DC. Only out of Chicago. Ok, change of plans number one, I’m going to go DC-Chicago-Frankfurt-Dubai with the last two segments in Lufthansa First. I figure since this is my penultimate country trip, I should go big or go home and enjoy it…so Lufthansa First it was to be.

Then, three days before departure, LAX to Frankfurt opened up on the A380 in first. Sold! Of course, when I booked it, I hadn’t really thought about how I was going to get to LA. I could try flights the same morning, but that was a really risky connection. I could go the night before, but fares to LA were outrageous and there were no first class awards. Wait, what’s this…DC to Las Vegas (via Houston) for a really reasonable price? Sold! Ticketed!

Of course, I hadn’t thought about how to go Las Vegas to Los Angeles the next morning, but I figured American, United, Delta and Southwest all fly the route so something would work out.

So, off to the airport it was! It had been so long since I’d flown domestic that I forgot I couldn’t get into the United Club…but that’s what I save those Chase passes for…right? Unfortunately, turns out after handing it over that it had expired. When I asked if they might accept it this one time, her response was “does it LOOK like it’s 2015 to you?!” Uhh…thanks lounge dragon 🙁 You could have just said “sorry, I can’t do that even though I’d like to.” #Phrasing

Boarded right on time, and we’re off to Houston…maybe

United Express flight 6230, operated by Mesa Airlines
Washington DC, National (DCA) to Houston, Intercontinental (IAH)
Depart 15:35, Arrive 18:00, Flight Time: 3:25
Embraer ERJ-170, Registration N89313, Manufactured 2014, Seat 2A

Upon boarding was offered full open bar for pre-departures, so I went with a red wine and a water. When did United get these funky blue plastic glasses? Hint to United: doesn’t help them look any classier! I set my watch to Houston time and tried to get on vacation time.

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While sipping my 2016 Château l’Oscar I looked out the window and saw this:

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Regulated garbage. A very fitting description for US airline catering these days! Then…the pilot came on. We’ve been given a slot time in one hour due to weather in Houston. Ugh. Oh well, flight attendant was great and offered refills on drinks until five minutes later when the pilot came on and informed us we now had a slot time THREE HOURS later due to weather. I called the 1K line instantly and got a very unhelpful agent who told me there was “nothing at all available.” Even when I asked about Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, LA, Dulles, nope, she said no seats anywhere.

Ugh. Since it was going to be three hours we were told to get off the plane, and I made a beeline for the gate where an amazing agent got me the one and only seat via Chicago. Despite all the pressure he was under he did an amazing job and took care of me. Sure, it was the two things I hate: window seats and bulkhead, but he got me out that day!

So, I headed to the bar to get a drink. Where I wondered, wow, how do I have over an hour until my flight to Chicago yet I still get in sooner. That’s when I realized I’d already set my watch to Houston time, and I was about to miss my flight! Ran to the gate where I was pretty much the last one on board, but I made it!

United flight 565
Washington, National (DCA) to Chicago, O’Hare (ORD)
Depart 16:45, Arrive 18:03, Flight Time: 2:18
Airbus A320, Registration N485UA, Manufactured 2001, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 104,066
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,293,591

Still had time for a glass of Château l’Oscar while my seatmate proudly informed me he was on his third PDB beer. Good on you! You’re off to Vegas!

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Pilot announced we “have to shut the doors five minutes ago before we get hit by this line of storms and don’t get out of here!” Totally agree with him…

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After takeoff, there’s not too much to tell. The snack basket came around, and I was glad to see the caramello latte biscotti back in the rotation! Of course, my “water, no ice” wasn’t to be…

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Soon, we were on approach to Chicago. Best part of a window seat is the view:

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Landed a bit early in Chicago, and made the hike from Terminal C to Terminal B. Ran into a friend who’s a flight attendant for United, and by the time we were done chatting it was time to board the Ma and Pa Kettle Express to Vegas, where everyone thinks they’re in group one. Little hint, when they call Global Services for boarding, nobody actually bothers to check your boarding pass, so you can just waltz right on 😉

United flight 599
Chicago, O’Hare (ORD) to Las Vegas, Nevada (LAS)
Depart 19:35, Arrive 21:36, Flight Time: 4:01
Boeing 737-900, Registration N62889, Manufactured 2015, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 104,968
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,295,105

Shortly after takeoff, the warm nuts were served. I applaud the new blend which includes pistachios and some other unidentified nut:

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Of course, this ramekin should never have been used. I nicely pointed it out to the FA so she could take it out of rotation, and got a “whatever, lots of them are like that.” Ugh, way to be classy United.

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The most boring and bland looking meal ever. On the positive side, the broccoli and chicken were perfectly cooked, and when combined with the salad made a relatively healthy meal. For once United wasn’t trying to put me in a carb coma. One of the better meals I’ve had in a while domestically, although that’s not saying a whole lot.

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Somewhere after eating this and a couple glasses of wine I passed out…and woke up nearly three hours later just as we were about to land in Vegas:

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Overall, it was a relatively uninteresting set of domestic flights. United’s catering has clearly gotten slightly better, but the grumpy attitudes of a few flight attendants are still detracting from their attempts to do better. Major kudos, however, to ground staff (not club staff) who really took an unfortunate weather situation and turned it around for me. In retrospect, they did the best they could in a bad situation and got me where I needed to be. So overall, a net win for United on this one!

Next up….now….how do I get to Los Angeles? Called an Uber who took me to the Westin Las Vegas, which I’ll review in the next post…