To Europe on airberlin, S7, Aeroflot, American, DB and Trenitalia

Back in late August/early September, my wife and I went to Europe for three different things: visit family in Moscow, attend an industry conference in Dusseldorf and go to a friend’s wedding in Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Because this trip wasn’t planned around all of these events from the start, and because my wife didn’t know until August whether she’d be able to join me for all of these legs, I ended up buying an amalgamation of tickets on various One World carriers, with the most expensive ones being bought on miles, so that I could return them if need be.

Adding to the excitement was the fact that some of the tickets were on airberlin, a carrier that declared insolvency and had to be given a taxpayer-funded lifeline to stay operational.

Here is the itinerary for the trip:

8/31: LAX-SFO and SFO-DUS in J (combination of AA and AB using Saver Awards @ 57.5k miles/person + $11 in taxes)

From DUS we went straight to Berlin by train (4.5 hour journey)

9/3: SXF – SVO in Y on Aeroflot (Aeroflot Bonus redemption at 12.5k per ticket + $65 in taxes)

9/12: DME – DUS in J on S7 (initially bought as Y for $120/ticket but upgraded to J at the gate)

9/14: DUS – FLR in Y on AB (Saver Awards @ 12.5k/ticket)

9/15 – 9/21: drove from Florence, via Tuscany and Rome, to Sorrento

9/21: Trenitalia train from Naples to Rome

9/22: FCO-ORD-LAX on American in Y (SWUs didn’t clear)

All told, this trip cost me 140,000 AAdvantage Miles, 25,000 Aeroflot Bonus Miles and $1,150 for revenue flights and various taxes.

 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

6:30am 

LAX – SFO

AA 6042 ERJ 175

A couple of days prior to this flight, I started feeling unwell, and by the time we had to wake up at 3:30 in the “morning”, I was feeling full blown sick and really not looking forward to “enjoying” San Francisco for 10 hours.

We arrived at LAX right around 5am, quickly checked in and proceeded to the remote gates where we settled into the newly renovated Admirals Club. It was small, clean and stocked with breakfast items. The front desk agent was friendly and told me about some of the other renovations going on, and how they are way behind schedule.

 

LAX Lounge – coffee area

LAX Lounge

We boarded on time, taking our 3D and 3F and departed. Flight was uneventful and when we landed in SFO, we quickly made our way to the BART station and to San Francisco.

BART

The weather in SF was very nice, sunny and warm. I wish I wasn’t walking around with a 99 degree fever to enjoy it properly. I was told by my wife that we had a nice lunch near the water and that we, apparently, did other things, but I can’t honestly remember anything but the gnawing sensation of wanting to die.

Sunny San Francisco

Shinola store in San Francisco

 

By around 5pm we were back at the airport, and made way to the Cathay Lounge that was featured favorably in many reviews. Having seen The Pier first-hand, I was perhaps anticipating more than was reasonable, so the disappointment was swift. The CX lounge dragons scoffed at our AB boarding passes, but once I produced my ExPlat card, they bit their lips and let us in. We witnessed a similar reaction when we tried to put an order in with the Noodle Bar, even being told that this isn’t for airberlin passengers. I raised my voice a little bit right then, and they quickly retreated back to being polite and “remembering” that we were actually also AA ExPlats and not just AB J pax.

Cathay Lounge

A nice long shower before the flight helped me feel a little more human. We walked to the gate where boarding was already well under way. In a weird turn of protocol, the same AB agent who checked me in at SFO (fairly politely) asked me to produce my passport at the gate and was quite a bit less pleasant about it. Apparently, because I renewed my passport, something wasn’t matching in his system, but after a few strokes of the keys, he let me go.

8:00pm

SFO – DUS

AB 7393 Airbus A330-200

I was anticipating an apathetic crew, and I would not have blamed them for feeling down given the circumstances of their employment. To my delight, we found the FAs in Business to be pleasant and attentive. Our seats were 5E and 5F, in the middle, and I’ve seen them being referred to as honeymoon seats because they angle towards each other and allow for close proximity. I didn’t think they were all that close, but they’re definitely better for a couple than two strangers.

Much has been written about AB’s J product, especially about how narrow and short the beds are. I am 6’2″ and I was a bit worried about this, but frankly the bed was fine for someone my height. It’s on the shorter side, yes, but I was able to fully stretch out. I was a little bit crammed in the shoulders, so my verdict is that for someone with a wider upper body, this would have been the biggest concern.

airberlin Business seats

airberlin crew rest

Menu and tray table

Menu

amenity kit

tea and sweets

airberlin chocolates

The pros: food and service, as well as the seat/bed that was surprisingly more comfortable than I had imagined

The cons: AVOD had a very limited selection of movies and shows and the air in the plane was extra dry (perhaps I was overly sensitive to it, given my state of health).

Friday, September 1, 2017

3:40pm

The landing was very choppy, as I guess is normal for Dusseldorf. My wife, who is very sensitive to turbulence, was quite unhappy with this ending of the flight and it took her some time to recover afterwards.

After we deplaned, we stayed behind a bit so that she could reconstitute herself after the landing and by the time we proceeded to passport control, we found ourselves lost and going through closed doors and weird corridors, ushered by airport workers who didn’t speak English but either had good intentions or wanted to have a laugh at our expense.

Dusseldorf airport

Finally, we found passport control with absolutely no line and two bored agents who quickly processed us. Grabbing our bags, we took the very futuristic airport train to the DB station to await our ride to Berlin.

6:00 pm

Dusseldorf Airport Station – Berlin Hauptbanhof

What can I say? German ICE trains are amazing. We bought regular economy tickets but my wife thought I splurged for business class because of how great it was. Clean, with attention to detail, sparkling bathrooms with some cool ambient light and a nice and reasonably-priced restaurant car with healthy food options.

Restaurant car on DB ICE train

Very nice bathrooms

Seats on DB ICE train

Four and a half hours on a train after an overnight flight from the West Coast is no joke, but it felt easy on this train. We read, talked, listened to music and gazed out of the window, seeing Germany fly by us at 230 kmh.

We arrived in Berlin around 11 pm and took an old Mercedes taxi to Hilton Berlin, which I booked on points for two nights. As the hotel was full that night, the agent apologized for not being able to give us a Diamond upgrade to a bigger room, which was fine as we were ready to sleep on the floor at this point.

Berlin Hauptbanof

Berlin Hilton – view of our room

Saturday, September 2 – Sunday, September 3

We made the most of our 36 hours in Berlin. Though I’ve been there before, it was the first time for my wife and we made sure to see the main tourist highlights, as well as do things I didn’t get to do during my previous trips. A month prior to our travels, I reserved access to the Reichstag Dome right around sunset, and this decision didn’t disappoint as we got to see Berlin from the top at its most beautiful.

Morning in Berlin

Memorial to Soviet soldiers near Brandenburg Gate

Berlin U-Bahn trains

Reichstag

After a great meal with friends and a stop at Tausend, one of my favorite bars there, we retired for the night. Amazingly, I was feeling much better than the day before. I think a potato-heavy diet was the cure.

The Hilton was amazing in every way. The location couldn’t be beat. The design was modern, yet had that feel of old Europe. I am glad we stayed there and not at the newly-opened Waldorf, which I briefly considered. Also, the breakfast was top notch, both in the restaurant and the lounge.

Sunday, September 3

12:10 pm

SXF – SVO

Aeroflot 2313 Airbus A320

My wife had some orphan SU Bonus miles that I decided to use on this flight, more so to prevent them from expiring or becoming less valuable. The actual ticket would have been $170 or so per person, but the actual out of pocket was reduced to $60 in taxes (which is outrageous for Russia, by the way!).

We were almost late to the airport, because it’s nearly impossible to get a taxi in Berlin on a Sunday morning. The line for taxis at the Hilton was 20+ people long and despite the hotel’s best efforts to get more cabs, we waited for over 40 minutes before getting into ours. This is what life without Uber or an adequate number of evenly-distributed cabs looks like!

SXF is an AWFUL airport and I hate it in every way possible. What makes it even worse is how Russians line up for boarding, considering the cattle pen-like setup that each gate features. People were literally climbing over one another, cutting into the line, and making more chaos out of an already bad situation. We fly to Russia regularly and are used to this, but I saw a Japanese chap who was experiencing this for the firs time and he had a look of sheer horror on his face.

Berlin Airport check-in

Airport gate

Our Economy seats were window and aisle (15D and 15F), and luckily we didn’t have anyone sitting in between. The flight was all of 2 hours, and was quite pleasant despite a lack of AVOD or WiFi. The crew was efficient and friendly enough and managed to serve us lunch and beverages.

Aeroflot Business Class

Aeroflot Economy Class

View from airplane window

Aeroflot service

Lunch on Aeroflot

We landed early, made our way through an empty Sheremetyevo airport, collected our bags and met up with our relatives. It’s worth noting that the new SVO is a very nice airport, especially when not overly crowded.

Tarmac at Sheremetyevo 2

Bus from airplane to terminal in SVO

SVO 2 Terminal building

Monday, September 4 – Tuesday, September 12

We spent a week in Moscow, visiting family and seeing friends, checking out some new sights, restaurants and bars and going out into the countryside for some fresh air and relaxation.

Tea Shop

The Kremlin

Space Museum

Tuesday, September 12

12:40 pm

DME – DUS

S7 Airlines 991 Boeing 737-800

I booked two basic, HBO-style fares on S7’s website a few months ago and then called their Elite phone line to pick exit row economy seats that are reserved for their elites. Thankfully, my Emerald status was recognized and these seats were allocated to us at no extra charge (they would have charged $35 for them otherwise). I also purchased one additional checked luggage, because OW status on this fare gave me just one checked bag at 32kg.

DME is an inconvenient airport for those who live in the northern and western reaches of Moscow, and it took us a couple of hours to get there (first by taxi to the AeroExpress station and then another 40 minutes to the actual airport). It’s also starting to show its age vs. SVO and even VKO. Once considered Moscow’s premier airport, it has been a victim of a brutal terrorist attack and under-investment in recent years. With the collapse of one its two main tenants, Transaero, Domodedovo’s fortunes aren’t likely to be revived any time soon (as long as it remains in private hands).

We checked in and were sort of told that we could use Fast Lane to go through security. This lane is reserved for diplomats and Business Class passengers, but the only identification of that is the Priority sticker on the Boarding Pass, which I had due to my status (and my wife didn’t).

Anyway, I flashed my pass, and the security dragon ushered us through. We walked for a couple of minutes through a very empty and semi-dark corridor – definitely creepy. Finally, we reached a small security station, where the agent was busy yelling at a couple with two kids, and everyone was having some sort of a mental breakdown. We waited to be invited to scan our stuff and go through metal detectors, but hardly any attention was paid to us (the only other people in this area). We threw our bags on the belt, went through the detector and picked up our stuff without any acknowledgement from the security folks. Safe!

At passport control, however, they decided to give us a hard time. The customs official (a male) decided to give my wife a hard time for going through the VIP corridor, given that she did not have PRIORITY stamped on her BP. When I came over to show him mine, he became angry that I actually had one and yelled at me to step back behind the red line. The guy was clearly on a power trip, but without much power. I was processed by a very pleasant young woman who offered no such hassles. Eventually, both my wife and I made it through and walked over to the S7 Priority Lounge.

The lounge was renovated recently and was pretty pleasant visually, but super stuffy. The AC, if it existed, made as much difference as a small army of coughing ants would have if they were asked to provide air circulation. On a Tuesday afternoon in September, S7 had a TON of flights leaving for eastern European vacation destinations, including Cyprus, Bulgaria and the like. All of these flights left within an hour of one another and the lounge emptied out.

View of the S7 Lounge from the second floor

S7 Lounge hot buffet

S7 Lounge bar

Another coffee area in the S7 Lounge

There was a decent hot buffet, with coffee, tea and soft drinks as well as Efes beer on tap. Espresso drinks from a barista cost extra and I assume nobody ever bothered to order from him, so he left and never returned.

After about an hour and a half in the lounge, we walked over to our gate, which was actually just an exit to the buses. There was a HUGE crush of people for the Economy line and an empty Business/Premium line, so we fortunately skipped the madness. Right when we handed our passes to the agent, he gave us two new ones – 1A and 1B. Boom! Upgraded to Business on a $120 basic Economy fare – thanks Emerald! This also meant that we would avoid the bus and take a Mercedes van that was reserved just for Business passengers.

VIP van for S7 Business passengers

Domodedovo airport

Our S7 Boeing 737-800

Business Class on S7 is akin to something you would see on domestic routes in the US – a dedicated cabin, with bigger, more comfortable seats in a 2+2 configuration. It’s not EuroBusiness that most airlines operate in the EU, and it’s a plus for sure.

S7 Business class seat on a Boeing 737-800

In each seat, the crew already placed an amenity kit, blanket and pillow. While the last two items weren’t anything special, I did find the kit to be fun – especially the pouch with its graphic print and the slippers, which I kept because they are wide enough for my feet.

S7 Business amenity kit

The FAs weren’t as pleasant or as polished as they are on Aeroflot. We were mostly served by a female FA who served us lunch and beverages, but didn’t bother to provide refills unless asked. I also noticed that they didn’t come up to recognize my status and thank me, something that SU FAs do without fail, even when I had lower Delta status and was flying in Economy.

appetizers

main meal (seafood)

main meal (beef)

The flight was quick – just over two hours, and we landed in sunny Dusseldorf in the early hours of the afternoon. I always geek out at new airports, and today was no different, as we taxied past an Iraqi Airways A320 and an Emirates A380, which provided quite the contrast.

Iraqi Airways vs. Emirates

We cleared customs, grabbed our bags and went to the train station to catch our ride to Bonn, where we would spend the next two nights while I attended my conference in nearby Cologne.

Unlike the ICE experience, the regional train was much less comfortable, especially with two suitcases in tote. Frankly, I am not sure how a train that picks up passengers at a major international airport is not equipped with proper luggage holds!

An hour and change later (and with sunny weather being replaced by windy and cloudy one), we arrived in Bonn, a city which once represented a Cold War frontier as the capital of West Germany. It’s funny how some cities just have an aura about them, and Bonn is certainly one. Even though it’s small, you can just feel that it’s an important historical town and that big things happened here. I was fascinated by its diplomatic presence in the 1950s – 1990s and read a lot about Little America, which was a neighborhood of 14,000+ American citizens who lived, worked or supported the American Embassy in Germany. Every other country in the world had their German diplomatic missions there and while none maintain embassies there, most have big consulates or property remaining from those days.

We checked into Hilton Bonn, a nice, if architecturally unremarkable hotel on the banks of the Rhine River. One big downside about this hotel – it does not have an adequate number of elevators and because our key card didn’t work right away, I spent over 30 minutes shuttling to and from the reception desk, and waiting for the lifts to come. Ultimately, we got our upgraded corner room, which shared a semi-private two-story living area with another room. The views of the river from the room were great and there was plenty of space but having an additional “turret-like” second floor with 360 degree views was amazing and the comfy furniture allowed for some relaxed reading and time-lapse photo taking. We were also treated to a view of a beautiful rainbow over the river.

Rainbow as seen from the Hilton Bonn

View from our room

Upstairs 360 degree “living room”

The breakfast at the hotel was on point – delicious, with many different buffet choices and with good service. Being able to walk right onto the river bank and walk off some of the pastries was also clutch.

Breakfast at the Hilton Bonn

Overall, Bonn left a very favorable impression.

Thursday, September 14

9:10 pm

DUS – FLR

airberlin 8878 Bombardier Q-400

I started getting a bit worried about this flight, because during the conference, hundreds of people didn’t make the opening as AB cancelled most of its long-haul flights due to a massive number of pilots calling out sick. Without additional options, I just held my breath and crossed my fingers that our short-haul flight would be fine.

It was.

After meeting my uncle and some relatives in Cologne for delicious pizza, we took the train to the airport and checked in at an empty AB counter. Recognizing my status, we received an invitation to the contractor lounge and proceeded there. The lounge was a mess, to be honest, and while it had some food and some drinks, it wasn’t somewhere you’d want to spend hours in. With the recent closure of AB’s own lounge, everyone was shoved into this small space, in addition to the Priority Pass card holders. The staff clearly didn’t care anymore, which was evident by how dirty the floors and bathrooms were. We picked up some hot tea and some bottles of water and promptly walked over to the gate, where we were told there would be a small delay.

Food spread at the DUS lounge

Beverages at the DUS lounge

DUS lounge

airberlin gate at Dusseldorf

Bus to plane in Dusseldorf

The flight itself was uneventful. There were a few semi-famous Germans flying to Florence and the flight attendants spent a lot of time talking to them, but I didn’t know who they were.

Boarding at DUS

On board our flight to Florence

Florence was pitch dark by the time we landed and because this was an intra-Schengen flight, we didn’t have to deal with passport control after collecting our bags. The line to get a taxi was insanely long and there were no Ubers to speak of. I was starting to really appreciate what other countries have with these on-demand ride services as waiting for a taxi at midnight wasn’t my idea of great fun.

Deplaning in Florence

Finally, we were on our way to the Hilton Metropole, where we checked in quickly and were in bed within 15 minutes. Florence was waiting in the morning!

Hilton Florence Metropole

Friday, September 15 – Friday, September 22

Florence – Siena(-ish) – Rome – Sorrento – Rome

The view from our room in the morning was splendid – we could see the ancient red roofs and domes in the distance. The breakfast, however, was less amazing and, frankly, disappointing for Italy. The silver lining is that we didn’t linger for too long in the restaurant and instead checked out, stored our bags and boarded the free (great Hilton perk) shuttle to central Florence.

Florence skyline

Florence Hilton Breakfast

I hate crowds, having lived in Manhattan and London for a combined 9 years, and avoid them at all cost. Florence was just one massive crowd and I hated it. I’ve seen enough beautiful architecture and art over the years that I wasn’t overwhelmed by anything Florence threw my way. The best part was leaving the center and going up into the hills towards Piazzale Michaelangelo, where we found a gelato festival in full swing.

Florence Cafe

Sky peaking through in Florence

Arno river

After a day of walking around Florence (and grinding my teeth), we took the shuttle back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and went to the rental car area at the airport to get our ride – a white Fiat 500!

Our Fiat 500

With torrential rain accompanying our journey, we weaved our way out of Florence and took aim towards rural Tuscany, and specifically La Bagnia Golf Resort & Spa, a Curio hotel. The road that leads to the hotel, off the main autostrade, is small and has a definitive village feel to it. I am glad that we had Google Maps to guide us, because there is now way I would have believed that this patch of dirt would lead us to a Hilton resort.

La Bagnia is fairly new, having opened in early 2017 after Hilton purchased an entire village and renovated it to become a Curio property. The check in was friendly and we were given an upgrade to a suite in the Medici house near the main building. The porter took us and our suitcases in a golf cart to the doorstep and brought everything up for us. The service at this hotel was consistently great and professional, making it clear that La Bagnia is working hard on establishing a top-notch reputation.

Living room of our Curio suite

Bedroom

Welcome gift

We had dinner on the terrace of the hotel restaurant and thought it was delicious, if pricey. The real treat was going to sleep there a few hours later. The hotel is in the middle of nowhere and with zero noise and fresh air, sleeping with wide-open windows to the sound of the rain was a rare treat!

Unlike it’s cousin in Florence, La Bagnia serves an amazing breakfast, similar to what we had in Bonn and Berlin. Local ingredients are interspersed with other delicious items and the coffee was served in a big pot!

The hotel grounds are fabulous. They consist of multiple buildings in the traditional Tuscan style (this was a real village, after all), complete with a church, gazebos and viewing platforms. Roomba-like lawn mowers were at work across the acres on which the hotel sits and in the distance, sounds of golf balls leaving their tees reminded me that this was a golf resort (the largest in Europe, apparently).

Hotel grounds

Hotel grounds

Automatic lawn mower

Hotel grounds

Swimming pool

View from our window

It was too chilly to enjoy the pool, so after a nice walk we got into our car and drove to Banfi winery for lunch and wine tastings. Post-Banfi, we detoured for a couple of hours to Siena before returning to our hotel.

Siena – Pubblico Palace

Siena – Duomo di Siena

On Sunday, after breakfast and some walking around and lounging, we continued our journey towards Rome, where we had planned to spend just one night before going onward to Amalfi. I was excited for our stay at the Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf resort, which I snagged for 60,000 points just a few weeks before our trip. Driving a car in Rome was a scary prospect, but I think my experience of driving in LA, London and New York made it less of an ordeal than what I had imagined, but still a trip.

We arrived at the hotel an hour or so before sunset and after self-parking the car (for 5 euros), went to check in at the executive lounge/desk. We were given champagne while our room was being assigned, which was a nice touch, reminiscent of our experience in Conrad Tokyo. The hotel lobby is gorgeous, in a classic (if gaudy) Italian style with statues and paintings depicting the Renaissance era.

Our room, on the 5th floor, was absolutely stunning, with a beautiful bathroom and Ferragamo toiletries. The terrace, which overlooked the hotel grounds, opened up to an absolutely surreal view of central Rome, with the Vatican just to the right and Circus Maximus straight ahead. As the sun set over the city, we were treated to a life-changing turning of the colors, and we couldn’t help but open a bottle of prosecco that we bought at Banfi to celebrate this experience.

Rome Cavalieri – desk area

Rome Cavalieri – bedroom

Rome Cavalieri – view from room onto the pool area below

Rome Cavalieri – view from room

My status entitled us to (yet another) welcome drink at lobby bar, while the last shuttle for the center left at 8pm, so we had to rush ourselves to ensure we too advantage of both of these things 🙂

We spent a wonderful evening in Rome, a city which I previously didn’t love much, but one that offered me its best self this time around.

In the morning, we ate at the pool-side restaurant (Waldorf doesn’t offer free breakfast to Hilton elites anymore, but we were given the option to buy it at a 50% discount, which we took advantage of). We were frankly so stuffed from all the food we’ve been eating that we could have easily skipped this meal, but as this was our last upscale Hilton stay in Europe, we decided to indulge.

Rome Cavalieri – breakfast area

Our friends asked everyone to be in Sorrento by noon in order to take private boats to Capri, so we couldn’t linger in this hotel much longer and jetted out of there, and out of Rome, as quickly as we could. We had a couple of hundred kilometers to drive and not much time for any delays or detours.

We barely made it to the meeting point in time, as the traffic in Amalfi was absolutely insane and the last 30 kilometers took an hour to drive.

The next three days were spent with friends in Capri, Sorrento and Positano. This is a beautiful part of the world and we wished we had more time to enjoy it. Though I had initially booked the Hilton Sorrento Palace, I decided that we wanted to stay closer to the water and not pay 350 euros per night for another Hilton experience. Instead, we stayed at Marina Grande Residence, a boutique hotel right by the water. It was freshly renovated, with a good bed, strong AC (too strong in my mind) and a great manager. With a small grocery shop nearby, we indulged in fresh bread, mozzarella di bufala and prosciutto for breakfast, at prices not exceeding 7 euros!

Boat to Capri

Sorrento marina

Positano

Sorrento

Breakfast from the local store in Sorrento

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and we had to start making our way back to Rome to catch a Friday morning flight to Chicago. We arranged for a transfer from the hotel to Naples and then took a Trenitalia high speed train to Rome Termini, from where we hopped (barely!) on the Leonardo Express to the airport.

I want to say that all of this was seamless, but of course it wasn’t. Our transfer driver didn’t touch the steering wheel with the palm of his hand once! He drove exclusively using his elbows and knees, while talking to the police on the phone, trying to resolve an issue with a towed Vespa. The train from Naples, while super nice and fast was filled with phone-talking locals. Our neighbor jumped out of his seat every time his phone rang and paced up and down the car, talking pretty loudly (competing, in fact, with others for loudness). And we ran and barely made our last train to the airport, which was no small feat with two suitcases.

The cherry, however, was taken by the last stretch of travel – from the FCO Airport to the FCO Hilton Garden Inn, a hotel so close to the airport, you could almost (almost!) walk. As I ranted about before in my post about signage in FCO, the Italians struggle mightily in the visual aids department and this time was no different. There is, apparently, a free HGI shuttle, but no mention is made in the app, site or emails from the hotel about where to find it. So, logically, we followed signs to Ground Transportation and then to Shuttles/Buses – all of this with two heavy suitcases. After a 20 minute walk from the train, up escalators and down some elevators, we were told by another bus drive that the HGI shuttle picks people up three levels up at departure. Because who needs signs, right?

I didn’t want to back-track and be proven wrong, so we hopped into a taxi and I asked the driver to take us this very specific hotel and showed him my phone to make sure he saw the address. Instead, he started yelling at me, demanding that I tell him “1 or 2” and saying he needed to know this now. I looked at the address and the street or building number was “2” so that’s what I told him. He wheeled out onto the autostrade and got into the middle lane. Strange…the hotel was only 4km from the terminal, why would he do this. About 6-8 minutes in, he started putting the address into his GPS and I realized that he was putting in the wrong address in central Rome. I quickly interjected, telling him that he passed our hotel and he became furious and started screaming that I should have told him that the hotel was in Fiumicino and not in Rome. How the hell should I know the difference, I asked him? All I need to provide him is the name of the hotel and in the name, it had the word “airport”. I even tried to show him the address, but he chose to scream at me instead.

What should have been a 5 minute hop turned into a 30 minute scream fest and a 35 euro fare. As he pulled up to the hotel, he literally threw our stuff out and said that he didn’t need our money and that we were wrong. Go figure. I still paid him 15 euros, at which point he said “I am sorry, we were both wrong.”

A-hole.

Hilton Garden Inn FCO

Friday, September 22

9:15 am

FCO – ORD – LAX

American Airlines 111 (on both legs), with Boeing 777-200 and Boeing 737-800

This HGI was nothing special. Clean, full of Americans, efficient. We had a semi-edible dinner, slept well and after a mediocre breakfast took the free shuttle (which was, of course, marked as Staff Shuttle and if I didn’t ask, I would have assumed it was for crews only) to the airport.

Thankfully, we had access to Priority check in as the crush of passengers was overwhelming in Economy. Our SWUs didn’t clear, but we did have an empty middle seat in MCE, so the situation was quite comfortable. The flight didn’t feel long and before we knew it, we landed in O’Hare.

American Airlines check-in area at FCO

Alitalia jets at FCO

The best part about this flight was sampling the newly opened Flagship Lounge. It was sublime and definitely the best American Flagship experience to date (we later sampled the lounge in JFK, and it wasn’t even close to being the same). The decor, the food, the showers – they were all sublime! I am glad we had a couple of hours to kill there and I was thankful for my status at that moment.

Cold and hot buffet at the Flagship Lounge

Wine and champagne selection

Showers at the ORD Flagship Lounge

The last leg of the flight, to LA, was brutal. I hate the 738 product, as the seats are uncomfortable, the windows too low and the flight too long for that plane. We both felt a lot more exhausted from this four hour flight than we did from the FCO-ORD one. A couple of days later I flew back to Chicago and made sure that it was on the Dreamliner.

Landing in LA felt surreal. We were gone for four weeks, visited three countries and 11 cities and towns. We flew on four different airlines, took two different national high speed train services, criss-crossed Italy by car and stayed in 7 hotels. It was definitely a trip that could have been done with more rest in mind, but as I said before, we booked it in chunks and it was impossible to consolidate this itinerary into something more relaxing. Regardless, it was a great experience and one that we’ll cherish for many years to come.

Maximizing What You Get from Your Travel

American Airlines Flagship First

I am by no means the world’s biggest authority on air travel, frequent flyer programs or airline credit cards. But I do think that I am on the savvier end of the regular flyer spectrum and maximize what I can get out of airline and hotel loyalty programs without resorting to extreme actions, like endless mileage runs and credit card churns.

I wanted to write about my approach because I get asked about how I get all my miles and status fairly often. I generally try to avoid these conversations, as most people assume that to achieve this, you have to full tilt and I don’t have the patience to convince them otherwise.

So, if you travel for work and pleasure and want to get more out of the money you spend on these trips, read on.

 

Decide What Matters the Most

Let’s start with the basics that I think everyone wants to get from airline and hotel loyalty programs, so that we can then talk about making informed decisions.

When it comes to airlines, major benefits of loyalty programs are free upgrades, lounge access, free checked bags, increased mileage earning, better redemption opportunities, priority customer service and priority boarding.

With hotels, it’s also upgrades, free breakfasts, increased points earned for each dollar spent, late check outs and executive lounge access, where available.

Clearly, things like upgrades and lounge access are considered to be top benefits and ones that most people would like to achieve. Though they don’t necessarily require top status to get, different airlines and hotels give you different options at each loyalty level, so it pays to read about how exactly these benefits are dished out.

Most U.S. carriers divide their loyalty programs into four tiers (five if you include the basic non-status tier). American Airlines, for example, has Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum tiers. Delta Air Lines has Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond Elite. All of these are tiers that you can earn through a combination of miles or segments flown and dollars spent. There are also ultra-elite pseudo tiers that airlines selectively give out to their most valued customers, like American’s Concierge Key. I won’t talk about this, because it’s invitation-only.

Hotels usually have a simpler three-tier approach and you can achieve status with either nights, stays or points earned. Hilton’s loyalty program is divided into Silver, Gold and Diamond.

 

Let’s Look at Airlines First

American Airlines Business Class on Boeing 777-300ER (Credit: The Luxury Travel Expert)

So, how do you decide what you want? Well, let’s break down what you are actually capable of achieving and go from there.

Each airline tier is achieved after a certain amount of miles flown (not miles earned) and dollars spent. Take a look at your paid travel for the year to decide what’s realistic. Do you fly between 25 and 50,000 miles? Then you’re probably aiming at the first two tiers. If you fly between 50 and 75,000 miles, on some airlines you have an option to reach a third tier, while with others you have to fly more to get to that next level. Clearly, it’s at this level that you want to start thinking about who you do your business with.

With Delta, you have to fly 100k miles to achieve their Platinum status, while with American, you only need to clock 75k miles to do the same. With benefits like complimentary domestic upgrades for their Platinum Pro fliers, American is probably the winner here and if you live in a city where you have a certain amount of choice, it could make sense to go with them.

On the other hand, if you fly under 75k miles annually, you may want to consider Delta as they give out complimentary upgrades to their Gold flyers, while American forces you to either earn or buy upgrade certificates (you get four for every 12,500 miles flown) to redeem for upgrades. The upside is that American may have more award space, as fewer people are eligible to get bumped up on a given flight, but the downside is that you may have to shell out upward of $200 on a flight from LA to New York to move up one cabin.

 

What About the Spending Component?

Recently, airlines have introduced a spending component as well, in order to cull the ranks of their frequent flyers and ensure that people couldn’t reach top status by taking a few long but cheap flights. Whereas it took only 25,000 elite qualifying miles to reach Gold with American, it now also requires $3,000 of spend on airline tickets to hit the threshold. This amount goes up to $12,500 for Executive Platinum.

AAdvantage Aviator Silver MasterCard from Barclaycard

Enter credit cards. Each airline has a credit card partnership that allows members to off-set some or all of the elite qualifying dollar requirement (EQD or MQD). American has two card partners, but only one (Barclaycard) offers this feature with their Silver Aviator MasterCard. With a reasonable enough annual spend requirement, you can get 6,000 EQDs via the card, meaning that your actual spend needs to only be $6,500 to qualify for top-tier status. This card also gives you 10,000 EQMs meaning that you need to actually fly 90,000 miles to reach the 100k EQM threshold for top tier status. Not bad, as that’s a round-trip flight from LA to London.

Some airlines are getting less credit card friendly, with Delta, for instance, wildly increasing their Amex spend requirement in order to qualify for top-level MQD waiver.

 

Bottom Line with Airlines

If you know how much you will realistically fly and you live in a city that has several airlines, you can make an informed choice. I focus only on global carriers that are part of alliances and that can allow you to earn and redeem your miles on international trips.

I fly a lot for work – about 60,000 – 75,000 miles per year. My strategy was simple: have an airline card with EQD and EQM components and always fly with American. Between my work travel and the card, I can get within 15,000 – 30,000 miles of Executive Platinum. I could just settle for Platinum Pro, and get free domestic upgrades and lounge access on international flights, but at the top tier, American also gives 4 Systemwide Upgrades – certificates that enable me to buy an economy seat on a long-haul international flight and upgrade to business. Anyone who knows the price difference can make a quick calculation of what that value is and it can be huge. For instance, I was upgraded to Business from a $600 economy ticket on an Auckland to LA flight (14+ hours), where the price difference was $5,000. Considering that you can use these upgrades on your family or friends also, this becomes a serious consideration.

I choose to close the gap between what I naturally earn and the top tier by taking a couple of trips throughout the year that I both enjoy and that help me earn the missing miles. Sure, it may cost an extra $1,500 or so but I see this as an investment into my next year’s travel.

One credit card, one airline within an alliance, and maximizing your spend and travel around these two concepts will enable you to get maximum benefit from your air travel.

 

What About Hotels?

Waldorf Astoria Rome Cavalieri

Hotels are easier and frankly, you don’t even need to travel much to get the core benefits. Though there is a lot of consolidation in the hotel industry, you still have options. The main ones are Hilton and the combined Starwood/Marriott properties. The later (at least Starwood) was considered to be a better product vs. Hilton, but that is subjective and depends on where your travel takes you.

It’s worth noting that most of these hotel brands are significantly more upscale outside of North America and you get a lot more with your status there.

I picked Hilton and I don’t even need to spend a night there to get Gold Status, because it comes automatically with the Hilton Surpass Card from American Express. It’s a $95 annual fee that is very well worth it because you get room upgrades and free breakfast for you and a companion automatically. A breakfast in a Hilton Garden Inn in New York is $25/person + tip, so you pay for this fee with a two night stay if traveling with another person. If you manage to spend $40k or more on this card, you get bumped up to Diamond status, which gives you a better chance of an upgrade, but still the same breakfast.

I have this card and I use it just on my Hilton spend, so that I can earn 11 points per each dollar spent.

It’s worth noting that you don’t get free breakfast at Starwood unless you hit the top tier and their credit card, while good for other things, doesn’t give you this benefit either.

Bottom Line with Hotels

Get yourself the Hilton credit card and get most of the benefits immediately. If you do at least a little bit of personal travel throughout the year, your wallet will thank you. Hilton also does a lot of points promotions, so it’s possible to earn a free night after just two or three paid nights, depending on certain factors.

 

After about 170,000 miles flown in the last 19 months, and a total of 50 or so stays in various Hiltons, I was able to earn enough miles and points to take two big trips that included:

2 business class tickets from LA to Tokyo on American Airlines ($7,000 value)

2 business class tickets from Tokyo to Auckland via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific ($6,000 value)

2 business class tickets from LA to Dusseldorf on Air Berlin ($4,500 value)

1 business class ticket (via an upgrade) from Auckland to LA on American ($5,000 value)

At least another 10 domestic flights in either economy or upgraded to business for myself and my wife, with a total value of $3,000+.

And a total of 12 nights in various Hiltons, Conrads, Waldorf Astorias and other Hilton brands internationally, as well as another 15 or so free nights domestically. That’s almost a month of free hotel stays with free breakfasts and upgraded rooms, with a value of at least $7,500.

Clearly, I wouldn’t have been able to earn all these miles and points without my work travel, which contributes to the vast majority of what I earn, but many people travel a lot for work and never even think about the right ways to collect their points and miles, which is akin to throwing money away.

I hope this is helpful to those who are interested in doing something to off-set the grind of work travel.

Japan and New Zealand – March and April 2017

For a long time, my wife and I have been talking about going to Japan but the timing was never right. However, right around February, she decided to leave her job and I thought it was a great opportunity for us to take a break and fulfill our dream. Happily, she agreed and so I started planning a late March departure, realizing that we were cutting it pretty close.

Initial Planning

I had saved up a lot of AAdvantage miles and Hilton points and wanted as much of this trip to be free as possible. When I started my research, I quickly realized that for us to fly in J to Tokyo, I would have to forget about MileSaver awards, as they were non-existent. But, to my surprise and delight, I could spend just 40k per person to fly to New Zealand from Japan in J, so our trip quickly expanded from being just Japan, to being Japan + New Zealand.

 

After some toying around with dates, I settled on the following:

 

3/26: LAX-HND in J for 140,000/person (but then claiming the 10k) on B772

4/4: NRT – BNE – AKL in J on Qantas for 40k/person on A330-200

4/5: AKL – Blenheim on Air New Zealand on ATR 72

4/12: ZQN (Queenstow) – AKL on Air New Zealand on A320

4/13: AKL – LAX in Y on B788, with a SWU applied and a lot of finger crossing

 

Annoyingly, given the cherry blossom season in Japan, the relevant Hilton properties were insanely expensive in terms of redemptions (and dollars as well), and so I had to book regular hotels and forego taking advantage of free breakfasts for Diamonds. Instead, I booked 3 nights in the Doubletree in Queenstown and 1 night at Auckland Hilton and decided to keep my eye out on the Conrad Tokyo, just in case something popped up last minute.

Change of Plans

I was flying back from New York after a few days of meetings, when I checked my Hilton app and saw that the Conrad had a 95k redemption for a regular room pop up. I’ve read enough to know that this is not considered to be good value relative to what people have gotten before, but considering that Hilton Tokyo was going for 200k points/night, this seemed a bargain and I always wanted to check out this Conrad.

I basically willed Gogo Wifi to power through enough of the flight, so that I could book this room and cancel my other reservations in Tokyo. I wouldn’t regret this decision!

Visas

As my wife is not a US citizen, but a green card holder, she had to apply to get visas for both countries. As I said before, we cut it close with the planning, and the visa component was perhaps the one that caused the most stress. Though she received her NZ and Japan visas four days prior to our departure, I was ready to call the ExPlat desk and reschedule our first flight to Japan, as I feared the snow storm on the East Coast (and the shutting down of the NZ embassy) would prevent us from getting her passport back in time.

Visas, tickets and hotel bookings in hand, we were ready to go.

 

Departure

I was excited to check out Qantas’ new First Class Lounge at LAX, so we made sure to arrive a bit early to explore it all.

Combined with it being my wife’s birthday, the whole morning felt extra exciting as we passed through T4 security, walked through the TBIT connector and made our way to the lounge floors. We missed the turn to the F lounge and waited, somewhat impatiently, at the OneWorld Lounge entrance to receive directions. There were two groups of people ahead of us, both flying in domestic J on AA that were trying to gain access and yet the attendant went back to her manager every time to inquire whether to let them in (wrong!) or not (right!). There was quite a line that built up behind us of people who were rightfully annoyed to be waiting for so long.

Anyway, we finally made it into the First lounge and I was quite surprised to see how few people there were, given the number of OW flights departing for international destinations. The OW lounge is usually a lot fuller, while the F lounge maybe had 12 people in it.

We settled down for the cooked-to-order breakfast and a celebratory glass of bubbles. As much as I think the OW J lounge is great, the F one wasn’t so much better. It was nice, very nice, but compared to some experiences later on our trip, it wasn’t amazing. I also very much enjoy the DIY juice machine in the OW lounge and that’s not something that they have in First. Anyway, #firstworldproblems

After breakfast, and some FaceTiming with the folks, we schlepped over to the gate (the flight was departing from T4 instead of TBIT) and managed to be the last ones to board the plane. Our seats on this B772 were in the first row in the middle, which was ideal as we could put the separator down and talk. For some reason, given what Seatguru AND the AA seating chart were showing me, I was expecting us to have rear-facing seats but all the seats on this bird were forward facing.

I don’t need to describe how spacious and comfortable the new Business Class product is. And you can really feel the extra width on this wide-body. I know that Flagship First is a great product, but J in this case was sublime. It was also the first time that my wife was flying in flatbed J so she was absolutely over the moon with excitement. What better way to mark her birthday than to surprise her with something like this J

The FAs were friendly and attentive. They introduced themselves to us and offered us PDBs. As the plane took off, and we settled in, the meal service commenced. We pre-ordered our choices, with me going for a Japanese meal and my wife for the surf-and-turf. As the FAs were preparing everything, I spoke to one of them about sneaking in a greeting card from me onto my wife’s desert tray, which they were only too happy to help with. Needless to say, it brought a huge smile to her and the crew seemed to enjoy doing this for us.

This was also the first time I used wifi over the Pacific. As someone who has to deal with Gogo on weekly basis for my domestic work travel, I was expecting to have better service than what the Panasonic system offered. I heard many good things about its speed, but frankly it wasn’t much better than what I usually experience. However, referencing the immortal observation of Louis CK, we are too quick to criticize something that we didn’t even know existed five seconds ago. Having internet over the Pacific for less than $20 is amazing and we took full advantage of it, while watching all the recent Oscar-nominated movies and gorging ourselves on food and drinks that were being constantly offered.

The 10 hour flight passed quickly and my wife, who hates flying (well, hated, until she flew on this flight) lamented that it was over too soon and that she was ready to spend another few hours on the plane.

 

Tokyo

I picked Haneda because of its close link to central Tokyo, and given where we were going to stay, but when we walked out and encountered a bit of the arriving madness, I have to say I appreciated the English speaking staff who were on hand to help those of us who looked a bit like deer in headlights.

For most of our time in Japan, we relied on their amazing public transport system – whether the monorail from Haneda, the metro or the Shinkansen and local trains.

One of the absolute highlights was our stay at The Conrad Tokyo, where we received absolutely royal treatment, thanks to my Diamond status, and got upgraded to an 800 sq ft suite. The room, the shower, the pool on the 25th floor, the executive lounge with fantastic food, champagne and whisky, as well as an unbelievable breakfast the next morning were a travel junkie’s version of heaven. My wife, who absolutely did not expect any of this lamented that we actually had plans to go and see a show in Tokyo that evening, as she would have preferred to spend the rest of it in the hotel.

Here are a few photos from this stage of the trip:

 

Tokyo – Brisbane – AKL…or not?

 

After spending a week in Japan, we were looking forward to our flight to AKL via Brisbane in QF J. Arriving in NRT a bit earlier to take advantage of the lounge, we quickly bypassed the big Y line at the Qantas check in and appeared with our passports in front of the Emerald check in.

Mentally, I wasn’t all quite there like I usually am before a flight. As we were being checked in, I was realizing that certain items I wanted for in-flight were still in the big suitcase, so I was making a bit of fool out of myself by fishing them out as the suitcases were being loaded on the belt. This level of preparedness actually permeated through this whole trip, because of the extremely short notice that we gave ourselves to plan it.

Once the JAL agent checked me in, she turned her attention to my wife, who is a Russian national.

“Visa, please” she asked, even though she had a copy of the New Zealand visa in her hands.

“What visa? You have it” I said, pointing to the papers.

“Transit visa for Australia” she clarified.

My heart sank. I took it upon myself to research all the necessary visas that my wife would need for this trip and could have sworn that for the 1.5 hour transit time, where we didn’t leave the airport, she did not need one. My heart started racing, as I quickly evaluated my options and none looked good.

The sympathetic, but unhelpful, JAL staff recommended that we go off to the side and (as if they live in another reality) get a visa real quick and come back to them. With the Aussie embassy already closed and the head offices in Canberra not yet open, we really did not have a way to contact anyone to figure out what to do.

Ultimately, I resorted to calling an emergency hotline for Australian citizens abroad, apologizing profusely for neither being a citizen nor in trouble of the terrorism kind, but just needing help. The relatively patient lady on the other end told me that the airline would need to call the Border Force to see if an exception could be made for us (it couldn’t) and that otherwise we were SOL.

Legal options seemingly exhausted, and with the JAL ladies suggesting that we book a last minute non-stop Air New Zealand flight (something I really didn’t want to do), I decided to see if I could get some help from American’s ExPlat Desk.

To date, this ranks as far and away my best loyalty experience ever.

The extremely competent and sympathetic AAngel who picked up the phone (I was making this call using airport wifi, so it was registering as my Verizon number on AA’s end) totally understood our predicament and furiously started looking at options. The line cut out three times and she called me back immediately each and every time to pick up the conversation.

Amazingly, there were two J seats available on Cathay Pacific the next morning and we could be in Auckland less than 24 hours after our originally scheduled arrival. All at no incremental cost in terms of miles, and just a few extra bucks in taxes. On top of this, we would get to fly from Hong Kong to AKL on the brand new A350, which I have never flown.

The sense of relief was absolutely immense. After two hours of not knowing what to do, I felt like American not only did what they were supposed to, but went the extra mile to ensure that my wife and I were taken care of.

A funny side note, for AA to rebook us, they needed JAL staff to “uncheck us” from the QF flight to release the miles. I spent more than five excruciating minutes trying to explain this concept to them until they relented, called a supervisor who spoke better English, and finished the process.

With this ordeal seemingly behind us, all that we needed was a hotel, a dinner and a cold beer. Thankfully, I had just enough Hilton points to book us into the Narita Hilton for a night and within the hour, we were drinking cold Sapporos and enjoying some hearty soup.

 

Tokyo – Hong Kong – AKL

We woke up the next morning to a view of wide bodies flying over the adjacent forest. Quite the view! After a nice breakfast, we were off to NRT for the second go-around, this time successful.

Our quick stop at the Cathay lounge was just that – quick. There wasn’t much to do there and we should have really gone to the JAL one instead. But with not much time to spare, we just made our way to the gate and boarded CX 501, a B773ER. Our seats in row 17 of J were great for this relatively short flight. While not flat bed, they had a great recline and were absolutely comfortable for this day time jump over the Pacific.

This flight was packed and the FAs were clearly just trying to have an on-time push back, so there weren’t a lot of smiling faces. The service on board was efficient and friendly enough, but it didn’t come close to what we had with our flight on American to Tokyo. I thought we’d likely experience more friendliness on the longer flight to New Zealand.

We planned to spend part of our 9 hour layover in Hong Kong itself, a plan cut woefully short by my wife leaving her iPhone on the HKG Express train and us spending three hours trying to recover it (we did and decided that we needed to stop being unattentive idiots and start getting together with it).

Instead of seeing Hong Kong, we came back, iPhone in hand, to the airport and proceeded to spend the next few hours at The Pier, Cathay’s unbelievable First Class lounge (voted best in the world by several magazines and blogs). When I think of things that define the word sublime, I think of The Conrad in Tokyo and this lounge.

We regretted ever going into Hong Kong, given what we did there and the fact that we could have just gotten sloshed at The Pier instead. After three hours of heavenly relaxation, we boarded CX 197 (seat 12A and 12K, I believe) for our overnight flight to AKL.

I was really looking forward to this experience. The seats were very spacious and angled to face the windows, which was great. The suite-like enclosure gave a great sense of privacy and there was plenty of space for everything. But I was surprised that parts of the seat were already really worn out and the movable arm rest was coming apart – this is a new plane and already it felt like it has been flying for a while.

The service was also lacking. The FAs either seemed new or frazzled, but you could tell they were not comfortable with doing anything outside of the prescribed norm. My wife requested to only have a drink and an appetizer, as we ate in the lounge, so that she could maximize her sleeping time, but the FA didn’t seem to process it, leaving her without any food. Similarly, I asked to change my drink order, a request that resulted in a huddle until the purser confirmed with me what I wanted and then ensured I got it. Surely, these were not demanding requests and ones that a J crew on a 10+ hour flight should be used to!

On the flip side, I have not slept as well on a flight as I did here. The bed was comfortable, the humidity level on the plane was Dreamliner-like, and the flight itself was quite smooth. I woke up right before breakfast and shortly after we began our descent into New Zealand.

From above, just like on the ground, this country looks like a fantasy land. Lush green fields were joined by a beautiful rainbow as we approached the airport, a sign of the fact that the rainy season was upon us.

Despite some minor complaints about the seat and the crew, we arrived in the country refreshed and ready to continue our adventure.

 

AKL – Blenheim

Our next (and for a while final) flight was on a turbo prop Air New Zealand to the heart of Marlborough country. Talk about a contrast of planes and experiences – from luxury to utility. We boarded our Dash-8 by walking up some simple stairs and then spent the next hour and a half squeezed into some pretty small seats.

Blenheim Airport is about as local as it gets. The terminal is tiny and bags are delivered by a truck – there is no carousel.

 

 

But there is Avis and they were waiting for me as I was their only Avis Preferred customer in several weeks. Our joy ride for the next 6 days would be a white Corolla hatchback, which seemed to be the rental car of choice in New Zealand.

We spent a few days in the wine country and made our way down the coast to Franz Josef Glacier (including a mandatory heli flight to the top of the glacier) and to Queenstown, where we stayed in the new-ish Doubletree on the other side of the lake. I’ve been to Q-town before, but as a younger guy with friends, and was struck by its setting and natural beauty. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t great this time around and we were constantly avoiding rain.

 

Queenstown – AKL – Los Angeles

We decided to spend only a day and a night in Auckland because as a city to visit, it’s really not all that impressive. I am glad that we didn’t stay longer, as a typhoon was dousing the city in torrential rain nearly the entire time.

We stayed at the Auckland Hilton, a vastly overrated hotel. The only redeeming thing about it was the breakfast. The rest was just weird, kind of old, and not very convenient at all, given that it’s stuck on a pier.

It was also there that I started feeling some flu-like symptoms, which were a real gift considering the 12+ hour flight home.

As this was the only long-haul flight that we paid for with money, I was prepared for us to tough it out in coach. However, right at the gate, they told us that one of the SWUs cleared (mine) and given that I was really not feeling well, my wife insisted that I take the J seat. Those of you who have ended up in this situation know it’s not really that great to be the one riding in Business while your significant other is in Economy, but she insisted and that was that.

This wasn’t my first time in the American Airlines Dreamliner, but the first time flying in J. I had the reverse-facing seat and of all the long-haul flights on this trip, this was the least comfortable one (perhaps also because I was progressively feeling worse).

The FA announced that this was going to be their Flagship Service, and pajamas were offered. The food, I thought, was so-so and the portions weren’t huge. I was glad to have the snack basket on hand, because I definitely felt hungry.

We landed in sunny LA, 19 days after we started our trip, feeling both exhausted, satisfied and full of stories and memories to last us until the next adventure.

 

When life comes at you fast: how we made the choice to move to LA

Remember that old campaign for Nationwide Insurance that had the tagline “Life Comes at you Fast?” I’m sure most everyone has experienced some sort of life changing event that was not entirely planned. For us, this event happened a year ago this month and I think we internalized it enough at this point for me to actually sit down and write about it.

What made our “Nationwide” moment different from most that I know about is the confluence of crappy timing, momentous events (both personal and global), and a test of whether our relationship was mature enough to sustain the stress that was to pile onto us over the course of the next six months. Looking back at this experience, I feel that we came out of it stronger, more resilient and more sure of ourselves and that in itself was probably a good return on the emotional investment.

Now mind you, our lives were following a pretty non-conventional path up to that point. My now wife moved from her hometown of Moscow, Russia to London with her job, as a news producer. She walked away from the comforts of home, her family and friends and an exciting job to take on a completely new challenge, both professionally and personally. A few months before her move, I made a similar jump across the Atlantic for reasons that largely mimicked hers. We were both looking to get out of our comfort zones, to experience new things and meet new people. Thousands of people do this every month of every year, but it is still a relative minority, which is why I define our life decisions as non-conventional.

We met in the winter of 2013, got engaged and started planning our wedding and our life in London. We had a small group of really close friends, our Russian families were happy that we were only a short flight away from them, and my American friends visited often. London seemed like a pretty rational choice to put down roots, start a family, etc. Certainly, there was no indication that someone other than the two of us would be deciding our future. Brimming with confidence, love for each other, and the thought that we had a pretty cool plan for the next few years, we committed ourselves to planning our wedding in Greece, which was to happen in May of 2015. As an added bonus, my wife’s employer (a Russian media broadcaster) offered us a bigger and better apartment, which we were going to move into a week and a half before Christmas of 2014.

At this point, I’ll provide a quick geo-political lesson, to paint the scene for what 2014 was like. After the morale-boosting Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, and the conflict between the two countries escalated even further, as a succession of events, culminating with the downing of the Malaysian Boeing over Ukraine by a missile allegedly fired by Russian-backed separatists. At this point, Europe and the U.S. imposed tough economic sanctions on a swath of Russian economy. If this was not enough, the global oil prices were accelerating their slide toward historic lows. Cut off from its largest trading partners, engaged in a costly conflict with its neighbors, and undermined by shrinking revenues from its main export, the Russian economy began a free-fall. The ruble, Russia’s currency, became worthless overnight (it started the year at 50 rubles to 1 British Pound and by the fall was at 100 to 1). This hit us directly, as my wife was paid in the Russian currency. While this was difficult to digest, we felt that we could weather the storm, but the other shoe was bound to drop, and it did a couple of weeks before Christmas, when we were told that my wife’s bureau was being shut down and she was being asked to return back to Russia. She declined, and the wheels of uncertainty spun into motion as we faced many simultaneous decisions: where to live (most immediately), where to move to, what job to look for and last but not least, we still had a wedding in Greece to pull off!

We obviously managed, but it was tough. We were forced to move from apartment to apartment, and thanked our stars that we had good friends who let us crash with them for the final month of our stay in London. I interviewed remotely with multiple companies, and we had to decide between Los Angeles, San Francisco and even Zurich, in terms of options. All the while, I continued to work at my UK company, while my wife was making sure that our wedding plans didn’t get lost in the craziness that was our life. At some point, we had decided to throw all of our stuff into storage, return the keys to our AirBnB apartment and fly to Moscow to spend two weeks with our family to decompress from all the stress. Thankfully, a couple of days prior to this, I received an offer from my top choice company and we were feeling a lot more certain about our future.

We managed to survive these crazy six months and thought at times it felt like all the odds were against us and nothing was going our way, we did the one thing that has been the hallmark of our relationship: every evening, hand in hand, we would go for long walks and talk about everything, no holds barred. We discovered an entirely new dimension in our relationship and grew to respect and appreciate each other that much more. In a way, we felt that what we experienced in those six months, matured our relationship the way a decade of married life might not.

We had an amazing wedding in Santorini on May 14th, with our closest friends and family sharing this moment in our life with us. And just five days later, we boarded our flight to LA to start our new lives.

I am glad we had the chance to confront such a challenge and persevere through it. Now, whenever we face a challenge or a difficult or frustrating decision, we both have something to look back to and realize that we can overcome just about anything together.

 

 

Moving to the fringes

On June 23rd, a small majority of Brits voted to leave the European Union, marking a deflating end to four decades of the UK in the European project.

To me, a student of history, and of European history in particular, and of someone who lived in the United Kingdom for three years as recently as 2015, this represents a triumph of all things that incrementally added up over the years to produce an environment of division and fear, much of it created in people’s heads by opportunists and the media that is incapable of monitoring itself.

I moved to London in 2012, on the eve of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics. Britain truly felt like it was the center of the world then. It was coming out of the recession quicker and stronger than most predicted. It enjoyed the status of a global financial powerhouse. Its athletes were competing, and winning, at home (Wimbledon, Olympics) and abroad (Tour de France). Its monarchy was rejuvenated by the dynamic princes William and Harry, and the captivating Kate. The sense of British identity was strong, you felt like you were constantly at a tea party hosted by Stephen Fry on the lawn of Buckingham Palace.

How is it, then, that in just four short years, the UK could go from being the center of Europe to voting itself out of the very union that propelled them to the world stage after decades of post-war stagnation? How is it that people who, seemingly, were better off than 99% of the rest of the world, in terms of standards of living, decided that they were better alone? How could a society of children and grand children of Churchill’s generation so soon forget that the very divisions that can be created by unions splintering and countries retreating behind their borders caused history’s deepest crises that tore not only the European continent, but the rest of the world apart?

My mind travels back to December 2010, when a fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself on fire as a protest to the country’s authoritarian regime. The Jasmine revolution, as it was called at the time, sparked a domino effect that took over the entire region and led to the collapse of Egyptian and Libyan governments, and shaking Syria to its core. The West’s decision to largely stand by and watch events unfold allowed the new forces to take hold and instill the belief among Arabs that changes were afoot. As we know now, these changes were largely negative as these revolutions created a fertile ground for the rise of Isis and gave Bashar al Assad’s government a reason to bomb his own people to protect his rule. Consequently, this weakness on the part of the West led to the refugee epidemic that swept over Southern Europe last year, which was already battered by the recession of 2008 and unable to cope effectively.

Observing from afar, it is easy to latch on to the words of armchair quarterbacks like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who called the EU weak and incompetent, unable to effectively deal with threats at its borders, because it had to answer to governments of 28 member states.

The gut feeling that Europe’s financial woes were also largely self-inflicted through incompetence, and that richer countries (UK, Germany) had to constantly pay to bail out poor countries also felt right.

Open borders between member states and movement of its people, the hallmark of the European project, all of the sudden seemed like a dangerous proposition. Forget the Poles and the Hungarians who, supposedly, flooded the country. Barbarians were at the proverbial gates! Scenes of refugees in Calais, outside the Channel Tunnel, spooked the public. Terrorist attacks in French and Belgian capitals made it even easier to blame the refugees who were piling onto the continent in record numbers (never mind that these attacks were carried out by homegrown terrorists, much like the attacks in London in 2005).

The accelerating pace of news coverage, and the ability to self select who one could listen to, created an ever-sharper divide in a country that was, in effect a federation of quasi-independent nations. The Scottish referendum showed just how much division there already was and how real their departure from the Kingdom could be.

Of course, the real divide was between the haves and the have nots. This divide, just like in America, affected those who relied on Britain’s traditional economic strengths that went out of vogue roughly at the same time as the European Union was spinning up. Auto manufacturing, steel works and other examples of heavy industry were shuttering and shifting overseas.

In business, we often talk about correlation vs. causation and being careful to distinguish between the two. Correlation is an observation of two trends, which sometimes neatly fit into a hypothesis you have (i.e. I started wearing a suit to work and my career took off, therefore I am proof that dressing for the job you want, rather than the job you have is a real thing). It’s often very easy to point to these trends and use them to explain outcomes. And many people will agree, because it fits into the same stereotypes they have.

Causation, however, is a much trickier animal and requires proof that an action produced a reaction. While correlation is the occupation of the chattering classes and opportunist politicians, causation is the domain of scientists, statisticians and economists who bristle at the idea of oversimplified solutions. The problem is that in the first group, you have the poisonous mix of those who benefit from shouting and those who are ready and willing to accept the shouting. The causation group ends up arguing with itself and its voices are rarely heard. Compare this interview with Leave’s leader Boris Johnson to this nuanced argument by an EU scholar. One is laden with repetitive hyperbole, the other is rich in facts and logic. And yet…

And yet, nearly 52% of the UK voting public decided that immigration, economy and security were issues that were, somehow, made worse by the country’s participation in the European Union. That leaving the world’s biggest single market was going to make the UK a stronger economy. That regaining control of its borders (which were already protected more than others’, due to geography) was going to protect it from terrorism that, as we know, has been largely a domestic issue. That European immigration into the UK was, somehow, the root of why the jobs that used to exist in Britain of the 1970s were no longer available to them. Nevermind that almost the same number of Brits worked elsewhere in the EU, the perception was that Britain was being robbed of its economic opportunity by Europeans arriving from the fringes of the ever-expanding union, taking jobs that were previously reserved for the English and the Welsh, and changing the make up of society and culture.

Nevermind that after World War 2, thousands of people from the further reaches of the Empire were invited to a war-torn Britain to help rebuild. Nevermind that these people settled in English, Welsh and Scottish towns and never moved back. Nevermind that people continued to arrive from Pakistan, India, Russia, the Arab countries – places that have nothing to do with the EU. They created communities that have contributed to the evolution of what it means to be British. Just a few months ago, Londoners elected the son of a Pakistani immigrant as their mayor. That, after having the Etonian Boris Johnson as a two-term leader of the world’s most global city. The same Boris Johnson who, for most of his political life, advocated staying in the EU, now became the mouthpiece for the Leave campaign.

I see the result of this referendum as the perfect storm of soundbite-driven media, opportunistic politicians, an electorate that is poorly informed (or informed by means of media they self select), and the overall air of fear that permeates our relatively mundane lives. During the cold war, we feared a nuclear war. But people didn’t fear it every day, in the same way people fear terrorism in music halls, movie theaters or shopping centers. This fear is much more personal and much scarier. It’s a one-on-one fear that has no name or face, but has a stereotype attached to it. And, unfortunately, when people turn on the TV and see who was responsible for the most recent attack, and then they look at those who are arriving into their country, they correlate and stoke even more fear in their own minds.

I think the British public fell victim to overstated fears that were enhanced by the likes of Johnson, Nigel Farage and others who sensed a once in a lifetime opportunity to accomplish their individual objectives. I am sure that BoJo’s objectives were very different from Farages and this alliance smells of a devil’s pact. Either way, they were effective in delivering a message that was helped by circumstances of the preceding months.

We don’t have to look far to see parallels of this. Trump’s rhetoric in the US tugs on the same strings of fear, just in a cruder, more open way. The same is happening across the Western world.

My final thought goes back to the beginning of this essay – seemingly unrelated events, through time, become interconnected. Not through consequences of actions, but through laziness of the human psyche. Correlation is a strong force and must be considered. It is no longer wise to assume that people will take the time to understand the truth when it is so much more convenient to hear things that fit into their pre-existing narrative.

And so, with a bit of a whimper, Britain is moving to the fringes of Western Europe and into an era of uncertainty. I am sure it will do OK in the long term, but looking back at history, many countries who are now OK, took quite an unpleasant route that could have been avoided. I fear that for Britain, and for the rest of Europe, the following years will be a scenic route they wished they never took.

Aerfolot’s Comfort Class: LAX to SVO

This is a quick and dirty trip report, which specifically aims to address the lack of reviews for Aeroflot’s Comfort cabin class.

When my wife and I were deciding on the best airline option from LA to Moscow, we settled on Aeroflot’s non-stop service which, after Transaero’s bankruptcy, remains the sole non-stop to Russia from the US West Coast. The price point for Economy was around $650 and Comfort Class was only about $150 more expensive. Note that these were one way tickets, as our return flight would be on BA/AA via London and Boston (we intended to spend a few days in each).

In the spring and summer months, SU operates a three-class Boeing 777-200 on the LAX-Moscow route, while in the winter they switch to a two-class A330.

We arrived at LAX a few hours ahead of departure. There is no information on SU’s website about a dedicated check in lane for Comfort Class passengers, but there actually is one. We skipped a pretty big line of Y pax and checked in swiftly. SU allows two bags of 23kg each per Comfort passenger. We also inquired about upgrades to Business and were told that those are available for a mere 17k Aeroflot Bonus points. While we had enough for one upgrade, we didn’t have enough for both of us, so we passed on the offer. Note that cash upgrades are only available on A Comfort fares, and I do not know how much they cost.

SU boarding is generally a mess, and when we approached the gate, we saw a long line snaking around and to the back. Assuming that Comfort pax get priority boarding, we approached the front of the line and were allowed to board with J passengers. Once again, not sure if this was our bravado coupled with SU’s lack of care or an official boarding procedure.

Comfort Class is its own separate cabin that has a 2-4-2 setup. Each seat is in an individual cradle, with adjustable reading lights, big tables and nicer screens. The seats do not recline but instead slide down. Each seat is equipped with an adjustable leg rest while the seat in front also has a flip-down foot rest.

Aeroflot Comfort Class seats

There are several slots both in the arm of the seat (or rather the wall) and near the TVs to store additional items. Some of these slots are more useful than others. What SU/Boeing intend to be a water bottle holder does not hold the bigger bottles that people tend to bring on board a 12 hour flight, rendering this use of space useless.

SU also provides its Comfort passengers with a pseudo amenity kit with slippers and eye mask. A warm blanket and relatively big pillows are also presented.

SU Comfort Class amenity kit

Aeroflot Comfort Class Seat in full recline

Aeroflot Comfort Class Seat in full recline

Departure was delayed by about 45 minutes as LAX police investigated something on board. Eventually, they escorted a gentleman in a suit with a roll-aboard suitcase off the flight and we were allowed to push off.

After takeoff, dinner service was fairly swift and the menu items featured entrees from Business class. I had steak, which was great. Salads and other food items were less inspiring. Wine was mediocre (served from a carton) and hard booze was not on offer.

Comfort Class dinner

One thing that everyone knocks Aeroflot for is the service, which comes from an outdated Soviet-era stereotype. The airline clearly puts a lot of stock in this criticism and has been doing a lot of work to make its soft product world class. The flight attendants on the flight were nothing short of phenomenal, in terms of the quality of service provided and friendliness. I was fighting a bout of flu right before our departure, and one thing that helps me is to drink a lot of herbal tea. Flight attendants were super attentive and made me tea about 15 times on this flight. They also took the time to chat with me and checked in constantly on other passengers.

From a hard product standpoint, I would say that the seat is not very comfortable. The sliding approach is inferior to a reclining seat, as it takes away from leg room. The leg rest does not go up sufficiently enough for a tall person to full make use of and the foot rest only helps for so long. I think for an 8-9 hour flight, Comfort is a good product (JFK-SVO, for example), but on ultra long flights, like the one we took, it is actually less than comfortable.

AVOD on SU, while good from a technology standpoint, is lacking in content. If you are a Russian speaker, you will have more to entertain yourself with, but for non Russian speakers, you will find a fairly limited selection of movies and shows.

Overall, I was impressed with Aeroflot’s improvements in the on-board service department. I was also fairly happy with their premium economy offering, but it’s not adequate for flights over 10 hours, at least for tall people. In fact, I would say that on a low yield flight, it’s better to fly in regular Y, so that you can flip up the arm rests and stretch out across several seats. Of course, this is a gamble and not worth it if you really want a bit more guaranteed space. The opportunity to upgrade for only 17,000 miles to J is a huge bonus, but I doubt many pax who originate from LA have an account with Aeroflot Bonus, so it may be a moot point.

Checking in on the Panama Canal via AA 321T in J (and other planes)

March 9, 2016

4:15pm – I’m trying to wrap up my work day, so that I can make it home at a reasonable hour, spend some time with my wife and maybe squeeze a run in. Later on this evening, I’m starting my first all J/F mileage run that will see me go from LAX to JFK, and onward to Miami and Panama.

Hollywood

I’m taking this MR to complete my Platinum Challenge with American Airlines and retain OneWorld Sapphire status, as my equivalent BA one expires in a few short months. Whether I’ll be able to hit EXP remains to be seen, but this is a good start. The trip was made possible by the FlyerTalk community, which identified a really cheap airfare from LA to PTY via JFK. Why is the JFK bit important? Because it’s one of the routes on which AA runs its fleet of A321Ts with a three-class configuration and a real First and Business class. A return flight in Business on the LA-JFK route routinely costs between $1,200 and $1,500. Snatching it for a third of that price, while also adding additional legs to Miami and Panama City was a real steal.

Previously, I have only flown LA-JFK in Y, and despite sitting in the Main Cabin Select seats, which give a bit more room and compare favorably to Delta’s Economy Comfort, this is no lie-flat business class seat, so I’m excited to give it a try.

My itinerary is a fairly aggressive one, with very little time spent at the actual destination:

3/9

11:30pm – Depart LAX on AA30 (Seat 6F)

Airbus A321T with lie-flat seats

3/10

7:46am – Arrive JFK

(I have a Global Entry interview between my arrival and the flight to Miami, so this will keep me occupied during the layover)

1:55pm – Depart JFK on AA2382 (Seat 2F)

Boeing 757-200 (International Version with angle-flat seats)

5:10pm -Arrive MIA

6:55pm – Depart MIA on AA959 (Seat 5E)

Boeing 737-800 (recliner-style seats)

9:16pm – Arrive PTY

I’m going to spend the night at the Doubletree Hilton in Panama City, but given my super early departure the following morning, I’m really not going to have time to check out the city (at most a dinner or a drink near the hotel).

3/11

7:00am – Depart PTY on AA960 (Seat 5B)

Boeing 737-800

10:03am – Arrive MIA

12:35pm – Depart MIA on AA64 (Seat 2J)

This is a Boeing 767-300 that will continue on to Zurich, so it’s a true lie-flat bed that I’ll be in

3:27pm – Arrive JFK

5:30pm – Depart JFK on AA181 (6F)

8:57pm – Arrive LAX

Overall, I’m going to earn 18,868 EQMs (distance x 2) and some amount of RDMs that I’m too lazy to calculate, as my Platinum status will kick in after the first leg of this journey. AA’s promo for F/J class travel should also add a few extra miles, so I’ll report on the total once the miles post.

10:45pm

Took Lyft from home to T4, missing all the earlier congestion on the highway. Pleasant and talkative driver made the trip a breeze.

The security line at T4 was quite long, but moved along briskly.
The TSA agent was cracking jokes and keeping everyone in a good mood, which is a rarity.

A quick aside: I am testing out a new backpack from eBags, and so far it has been great. More on this later.

I heeded the advice of others and took the TBIT connector to the Oneword Lounge, which is markedly nicer than the Admirals Club.

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After a quick bite and call with the wife, I made the return trek to T4 and headed to Gate 40.

11:00pm

Boarding was a bit chaotic with Business passengers being told to board with all levels of elite. But once on board, it was nice to not walk to the back of the plane and settle comfortably into the spacious confines of 6F.

The seat is very modern and comfortable, and is slightly angled towards the window, making looking out of it very pleasant. There is good storage space between the seat and the window (slightly behind the passenger) and plenty of well-designed nooks to put phones, tablets and other things. Though I contemplated leaving my backpack at my feet, eventually I put it up. img_0609

img_0607Though American doesn’t offer a true amenity kit, there is a small  plastic pouch with Cole Haan (really have a hard time believing that it’s anything but a label on top of cheap off-label products) socks and eye shade. The FA, who can pass as Karl Rove, also passed out Bose noise-canceling headphones with a stern reminder that he will collect them or else he’ll investigate you like he investigated Hillary and Bill! Also, does anyone notice that the FA’s name (the one on the screen) is Barbie?

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At 11:30, with lights dimmed, we still sat at the gate. Bummed that I gulped down my very passable sparkling wine, I just hoped we weren’t going to be delayed to a flock of geese playing with the plane’s turbines. Alas, a few minutes later, we pushed back. It was surreal to roll across the apron and see the real big birds of the sky take off in the dark. An Eva Air jet rumbled down the runway, on its way to Taiwan. A Virgin Australia B772 ER preceded us, as did a Cathay Pacific flight. And a 747 from Down Under waited her turn patiently in line. The Virgin and Qantas planes made me think of my three trips to Australia and New Zealand, now many yeras ago. I took one of the first Virgin flights to Sydney, along with a group of my best friends. We bought tickets (then $500) on an airline that had yet to make a single flight. We monitored its delivery of the first two 777s, and finally when we boarded our flight in March 2009, it was a dream come true. This was the best vacation trip of my life, and seeing these jets now made me lapse back to those relatively carefree days.
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I’ve learned my lesson about eating and then trying to sleep on planes several years ago, after getting a surprise bump to Business on a Delta flight to London. At that time, I ate everything that the FA threw at me and was bewildered by the sight of people going to sleep without touching their food. Only after I tried to recline into a bed position, did I truly understand that the value proposition of J or F lies in the option to sleep horizontally, rather than in the menu (I know many on FT will argue this point, but I can eat a great first class type meal at any time for less than $150).

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This time around, I got my seat into bed mode right away and went to sleep. Or rather doze, as I still wasn’t able to fully fall asleep. The bed was comfortable and it was more my thoughts that didn’t let me go into deep sleep. At one point, we flew through some turbulence and I was surprised by how much more comfortable the body feels when lying down rather than sitting up.

I had fully intended not to miss breakfast, but I did. I only woke up when my ears started popping from the plane descending. The sunrise over the Atlantic coast was beautiful – one of these Instagram-worthy photos that makes it seem like a filter was added, but in reality #nofilter.
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March 10, 2016

Arriving at JFK, and knowing that this was going to be my longest layover of the trip, I decided to head straight to the Admiral’s Club and take a shower, so that I wouldn’t give Global Entry officers and reason to not clear me after the interview on the account of accented body odor.

There was a bit of anguish at check in, as much for the newbie front desk AAgent (I won’t call her an AAngel, as she didn’t really make these 15 minutes heAAvenly) as it was for me. She apparently thought that I wanted to check in (which I didn’t) and really started scaring me, when she requested my passport, my visa (what visa??!) and then, mercifully, her supervisor. After the 10 minute mark, by far a record for trying to get into a lounge, I quipped that I have all my BPs already. At this point, she didn’t inform me that she was trying to check me in, and so I thought that her furious typing was a result of something in the system that required her to verify my passport in order to let me in on an international itinerary.

It’s never as complicated as this. She just didn’t listen and somehow mistook my shower request for a document equivalent of a cavity search.

Alas, 15 minutes into this exercise in futility, her ears unblocked and, with not the least amount of increduility, she asked/exclaimed “oh, did you say you were checked in already?” followed by a heavy-handed accusation of “then why did you ask me to check you in?” I protested, meekly, but then decided that if I ever wanted to shower, I better just shut up.

With lips sealed, I was escorted to the shower area. I have mixed feelings about the facilities. They weren’t bad, but I did wish I had flip flops as the actual shower cabin looked a bit grimy.

Shower at JFK Admirals Club

Nevertheless, with the help of spare towels, I managed to refresh myself and look presentable enough for the Global Entry photo shoot.

I patted myself on the back for not scheduling the interview for earlier than 10am, as otherwise my debates with the AA lounge dragon would have prevented me from having breAAkfast. The open area was pretty bare, with only a few people sprinkled around the various nooks of the Club.

JFK Admirals Club

I grabbed a spot by the window and ate a bagel and some cereal, while doing a bit of work that was waiting for me from my colleagues on the east coast.I didn’t have a lot of time to enjoy the views, as I still needed to find my way to Terminal 4, where the Global Entry office was, so I left the lounge, doing my best to avoid the dragon’s glance.

A brisk 10 minute walk to the AirTrain was enough to restore proper blood circulation and make me feel like a human. I usually try to walk at least 10k steps per day, something that’s hard to do when I travel, but I was feeling confident that this trip would have enough walking in it that I’d reach this goal.

airtrain

A short ride to T4 and a brief glance at Yelp to help me find the Global Entry office (next to the diner in the arrivals area).

Global entry

The office itself was very spartan, with a TV playing the tutorial on loop. I did not have enough time to actually watch it as I was summoned by an officer, asked a few brief questions, photographed and dispatched out of there all in 10 minutes flat.

global entry lounge

Who ever said that the government can’t be fast?

Global Entry procedures finalized, I meandered back to Terminal 8. I would have liked a chance to spend some time outside, but alas I think only Delta offers an outside lounge at JFK, and I wasn’t going to be welcome there.

Re-entering T8 through security was a hassle. I came at 10:30, right when all the TSA agents were changing shifts. I think the new shift was a bit late, and all but one TSA agent already left, meaning that both the premium line and the hoi polloi (I kid, I am one of you most of the time) had to wait for a solid 15 minutes while the agents finalized the change.

Then, as if by magic, a presidential length caravan of wheelchairs appeared, with no end in sight. At least 10 wheelchair passengers, each accompanied by entourages of relatives, skipped the line and made their way to the front of the waiting masses. Since I was in no hurry, and since the latest Freakonomics podcast was about the no-tipping policy of Danny Meyer, I didn’t stress out. But if I was on a flight that was leaving soon, I think my rage-o-meter would have spiked at this point.

Finally, I cleared security and paused to take a photo of a bejeweled AA jet.

model airplane

I then decided to simply walk around a bit, before secluding myself in the Admirals Club for the remainder of my layover. After all, I had my 10k steps to schlep! What I like about T8 is that it’s relatively bright and spacious and is not cluttered with places to eat and spend money at every step.

I really wish there was an airport terminal gym concept that would allow people who are willing to part with some money to get some physical exercise during layovers, without having to clear security or go to some adjacent hotel.

walkway

After burning off some calories with the airport equivalent of mall walking, I was back to the lounge, ready to sing praises (via this post) to my new travel backpack.

After a recent spike in work travel, I found myself wanting a backpack that was well designed, and took the modern business traveler’s needs into consideration. I didn’t need a “brand”, but a backpack that was extremely functional and, to my own surprise, this backpack ended up being made by eBags, the eponymous company that is the Zappos of bags. I ended up ordering the TLS Professional Slim Laptop Backpack, which, after a discount, came to $89 (from the original $109). There are several variations of this bag, with roomier versions for those looking to pack a couple of days worth of clothes, but I didn’t want something bulkier than this.

The backpack has several intelligent compartments, each designed to be discreet yet functional. There is even a zip-out bottle pocket, which my previous business backpack lacked. In addition to a dedicated tablet pocket, the sturdy compartments are have either L or U shape zipper openings, ensuring that the bag maintains its structure and not giving you more than you need. Its hard shell charger compartment at the bottom is great for chargers (yes), as they don’t get tangled up, but also for glasses, in case you forgot your case.

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I managed to pack everything I needed for this trip (laptop, iPad mini, chargers, a couple of magazines, a change of clothes, basic toiletries and my sunglasses). What a painless way to travel when all you have is this, and you don’t need to rummage through each compartment while going through security!

1:55pm

It was time to fly to Miami. As you may have seen in the earlier part of this post, I was under the impression that I’d be flying in a Boeing 757-200 with a Business class that featured angle-flat seats. The reason for thinking this was the map on AA.com which showed only four rows in Business, which eliminated all the other 757s in their fleet (at least according to SeatGuru).

Well, to my surprise and chagrin, the 757 we flew had more than four rows and all the seats were regular recliners. This Boeing still sported the old AA livery, and everything inside made me think of the early 1990s.

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757-200

As the clock progressed toward departure time, several seats remained empty, including the aisle seat next to me. With a couple of minutes to go, a very hurried airport employee ran into the plan with a small suitcase and several bags, hurled them into the overhead compartment and helped an elderly gentleman into the seat next to me. I’ll just admit right now that I thought this grandpa was not a frequent flyer, for whatever reason, until the end of the flight when I saw on his bag a Concierge Key tag. Cue me eating mental crow.

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We pushed off on time, despite several passengers arriving late. To our right was an AA plane in OneWorld livery, which I still think does not look as cool as the Skyteam one. As we made way to the runway, I saw a 747-400 freighter sporting an unfamiliar logo of SilkWay airlines. A quick search on Google revealed that this is a cargo operation run out of Baku, Azerbaijan and that SilkWay flies a number of Russian/Soviet planes, as well as these jumbos and 747-800 freighters.

OneWorld

SilkWay 747-400

A 757 is a loud plane, compared to more modern jets. The old interior shook and creaked as this bird rolled down the runway and took off, heading south. FAs, who were quite friendly towards the gentleman to my right, but much more reserved when it came to taking my orders, started service quickly. We first had a bowl of warm nuts and a drink (I decided I was going to start drinking on this flight, so I opted for a whiskey and Diet Coke, which came in two different drinking vehicles, each filled to the brim).

Lunch followed, with a choice of chicken and salad or something else (I think ravioli). I opted for the chicken, which was a regretful decision, as it was covered in soggy bread crumbs and made me suspect that American steals it from hospital canteens. The warm pretzel roll was, as ever, quite good.

Drink and nuts

757 lunch

The plane didn’t have AVOD, so we were treated to old-school bulkhead TVs that played the new Star Wars. As I munched on my sickly chicken, and half-listened to the movie, I was glad to not have spent $12 on seeing it in the movie theater.

What surprised me on this, and the subsequent flights, was that the FAs didn’t order hot drinks, like tea or coffee, after a meal. I’m sure I could have asked, but it felt like something that should be brought out after meal is served. It’s not like they had much to do for the balance of the flight.

As we crossed into Florida and began our descent, the clouds cleared, and the passengers on the starboard side were treated to some nice views of what I assumed was FLL and, later, Miami. You can see airports in both of these shots.

Airport Coastline

Right before touching down, we flew over the Trump Golf Resort in Doral. I think this is where the world’s favorite Presidential candidate had his press conference recently.

Trump Golf Resort

I didn’t have time to take photos of the Miami airport as I had to deal with a bit of work and half-ran (half-walked, because of the gallon of Jack Daniels sloshing in my brain) to one of the two Admirals Clubs in the terminal. This particular club was located on a balcony overlooking the concourse and had a very pedestrian and temporary look to it. I think there was a sign saying that the real Club was being renovated and that this might be a temporary location, but between the booze and the need to send some emails, I didn’t pause to confirm.

Armed with a few non-alcoholic beverages from the Club, I ran towards my next flight, which was departing at 6:15 (the total layover time was just over an hour).

6:15pm

Our plane looked nothing like I had imagined. In fact, I shared the photo below with a buddy of mine who is an EXP and has flown AA for a decade, and he said he never saw anything similar.

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I posted this picture on Twitter, which is when the @AmericanAir Tweet-a-thon began.

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Do they really love when we do Mileage Runs? Especially when it’s at a third of a price of what the ticket should cost? Well, for PR purposes at least, I guess they do. As you’ll see later, I got response from American for every MR-related tweet, which was pretty amusing and did brighten up my trip.

The Business class cabin was full, with the exception of one seat. There was a group of five folks, probably in their 50s and 60s, traveling together and they very clearly quite happy, assisted, I’m sure, in no small part by a few drinks. One guy, clearly the group’s leader, looked very much like Randy Peterson, the founder of FlyerTalk. So much so, that at some point I had to steal a glance at his boarding pass, just to make sure that it wasn’t him.

Warm nuts and a drink service once again preceded dinner. Entertainment on this plane was awful. There was no AVOD, and the choice of programming for overhead TVs was some NBC crap that looked bad without sound and, likely, even worse with sound. I was glad to have my iPad and powered through a few downloaded episodes of Mozart in the Jungle.

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PTY2

PTY4

We landed in Panama City airport on time, but ended up sitting on the tarmac for over half an hour. The pilot came on the PA a few times with updates, saying that there was a lot of traffic and we either didn’t have a gate available or, when one did open up, that other planes blocked our path.

I was getting a little annoyed, because I only had a few hours to sleep before the return flight, and these delays were biting into this.

Finally, we disembarked and I walked for a small eternity to passport control. Several other flights must have arrived right after, as the line behind me quickly grew. There were a lot of agents serving us, with about half processing nationals. The process was pretty simple, though I did get all my fingers scanned and a photo was taken.

PTY security

The wifi in the airport was free and actually worked pretty well, despite what others wrote previously. I even ordered an Uber, but then decided that it wasn’t worth the wait (and the 4.5 rating didn’t appeal to me). I found the taxi stand, negotiated a bit with the driver, and for $30 was driven to my hotel, a DoubleTree in the el Carmen district of Panama City.

The drive, on Google Maps, should have taken over half an hour, but I think all these guys speed so much that we got there in about 20.

Driving to the hotel

The hotel was a bit run down, with a very bland lobby and a shabby check-in area. The friendly staff processed me quickly and gave me a warm cookie along with my key. My room was on the 5th floor, which is an HHonors floor (this, despite my lowly Silver status). It was a fairly basic room, with the AC set to something freezing (though outside, it was about 95 degrees with 100% humidity). The tile floors which covered the whole room were cold because of it, and the shower was equally uncomfortable. It didn’t really matter, though, as I was exhausted and after a quick call home, collapsed into a short, but deep slumber.

Doubletree

hotel room

 

March 11, 2016

4:20am

The phone rings, and I end up having to pause slaying dragons and evil elfs in my sleep to attend to reality. It’s my wake up call and my not quite sleep and not quite nap (let’s call it a slap) is over. Five hours of shut eye is less than I hoped for when I initially booked my flight and hotel, but it’s doable.

A quick aside, there is indeed a hotel that’s closer to the airport – a Crowne Plaza. I was contemplating staying there, but it would not have given me a shot at seeing any of Panama City. El Carmen is only 10 minutes further, but is clearly in the bustling part of town, with many bars, clubs, eateries and highrises. Or at least that’s the impression I got from my taxi ride to the hotel. In retrospect, I am glad I sacrificed even a bit of extra sleep to at least get a glimpse of the city. I’m usually not a fan of flying in and flying out, without seeing the place, and I would have liked to stay here for at least a day, but I didn’t have the time.

After a quick meeting with a toothbrush and cold water to the face, I came down to the lobby, where they told me that my pre-booked taxi was waiting for me. I decided that the $6-7 that Uber would save me over a cab was not worth the potential hassle. Also, for anyone staying in this Doubletree: even though the WiFi does say that it’s $5, it’s actually not charged to you, if you’re an HHonors member and/or booked directly through Hilton. I confirmed this on departure.

The hotel told me that the taxi is $35, so I felt a bit dopey when I got into the cab and decided to confirm the amount, only to hear delight and surprise in the driver’s voice, who readily agreed. Point is, you can likely go William Shatner on them and name your own price.

Another thing I shouldn’t have done is get back to PTY so early. While I didn’t want to risk getting stuck in a long security line, there really was not one to speak of at 5am. The airport wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t buzzing with activity either. There were a few US-bound flights, as well as a few more going to other central and south American countries. The Copa check in desk was the only one that seemed to have a critical mass of people, along with American.

Curiously, an Emirates ad was plastered above the American check in desks, announcing the much-delayed launch of the Dubai flight, with no date given.

Though I heard that there was no Admirals Club in PTY, I still checked with the agent, who confirmed this sad truth, so I just went through security (which was very lax) and decided to scope out food options.

PTY American check in

Boarding Passes

Surprisingly, and confusingly, once you go through security, the first sign you see is for Admirals Club, directing you to the right. Then, a second sign confirms you’re walking in the right direction. I decided to see if there was a ghost of this lounge somewhere, but alas, there was nothing.

Admirals Club 1

Admirals Club 2

Not to worry, I was going to make my own lounge. The egregiously overpriced Dunkin Donuts coffee and breakfast sandwich (nearly $10!) combined with plenty of empty seating near the windows allowed for some good working time and even made for a nice photo of United and Copa planes basking in the Panamanian sunrise.

Dunkin at PTY

United jet at PTY

Copa

I also realized that I didn’t quite know where on the map I was, so a cursory glance at Google maps made me understand that I was the closest to both the Atlantic and the Pacific that I’ve ever been.

Panama map

Annoyingly, the signage at PTY is outdated and just piss poor. I had a heck of a time trying to find my gate, which was not marked in the main concourse. This chewed up a bit of time, and I had to book it in order to make the flight. Obviously, as in most non-US airports, you have to go through a separate security check when boarding a US-bound flight, so that took up some time. I was the last person in Business to board, but there were still a few Y passengers trickling in. Our plane was a different 737-800 than the inbound one, which (as I was informed by the wonderful folks at FlyerTalk) was sporting a heritage livery. This one was your plain vanilla AA.

I don’t remember a pre-departure drink, perhaps because I was still delirious from the early hour of the morning. The plane pushed back on time and soon we were climbing up to 30,000 feet and towards breakfast, which I was really excited about.

I ordered pancakes, which were delicious and even made the coffee taste OK.

pancAAkes

After breakfast, I caught up on sleep a bit, which allowed me to mitigate anger toward the non-existent IFE.

We landed in Miami on time and disembarked promptly. The low clouds hung over the parked airplanes, but otherwise the weather was calm and I knew my journey back to NYC and LA would be a smooth one.

Miami

 

MIA – JFK and JFK – LAX

In an attempt to wrap up this report, I’ll condense the writing.

I didn’t linger in the Miami Admirals Club for too long and did make the point of taking the train to my gate.

MIA Admirals Club

Miami Train Airport Sign

This is also when I got my 2nd tweet from @AmericanAir regarding this MR.

Tweet

The flight from Miami to JFK was on a Boeing 767-300 that was continuing onward to Zurich. I had the front-row seat (2J) in Business, which featured a fully lie-flat seat and ample private space, with no neighbors.

MIAJFK2 MIAJFK3 MIAJFK1

Amazingly, this bird does not have AVOD, however I heard that tablets are passed out on the TATL flights, so American solves this issue. Given that I had zero entertainment (aside from the 1970s-style swing out table), I waited for the meal and then went to sleep.

The flight to LAX from JFK was the highlight of my trip!

After boarding the plane, I noticed that the FAs in the J cabin were very friendly and I decided to see if I could cross off a bucket list item. Though I was quite nervous, I thought that being in J gave me a better chance of putting in the request with a relatively relaxed FA to see if I could make the trip to the flight deck.

I was sure I wasn’t the first to ask and was surprised by the FA’s surprise to my request.

“Why do you want to visit the flight deck?” she asked me, somewhat alarmed. This wasn’t going well already!

Taking a deep breath, I tried to explain that I knew this is a request that is normal and that I’ve heard that pilots are more than happy to have visitors to the deck. I also felt like I needed to tell her that I only wanted to do it on the ground, and that I was not insisting.

She definitely gave me a head to toe look, to make sure I wasn’t suspicious in any way, and then told me to wait. A few minutes later she returned, saying that I could go now and that Captain Peter would be waiting for me!!

As I made my way through the F cabin, I saw the Captain waving at me enthusiastically, motioning to come through. As I did, he vigorously shook my hand and right away told me to get into the left seat.

My heart was racing. This was unreal!

As I climbed into the prime seat on this A321T, I almost knocked the controls above, and the pilot rushed to put his hand between my chrome dome and the various buttons.

He introduced me to his first officer and told me to fish out my phone for pictures, while telling me to put my hand on the thrust controls. As he snapped a few pictures, both pilots asked me if I was starting or ending my journey and I told them that I was on the tail-end of a crazy trip.

They were surprised and asked why I went to PTY for only a few hours. I felt myself blush, but told them that it was for status. Together, in unison, the two pilots screamed out, with total glee “HE IS ON A MILEAGE RUN!” and had a great long laugh. As I left, they both high fived me and as I walked through F, back to my seat in J, I could hear Captain Peter yelling “That’s awesome – you’re on a mileage run!”

flight deck

I was beyond thrilled, both by the experience but also by the total friendliness of the two pilots. I know that I will not forget this experience and it, above all else, has left the most positive of images of my first MR on American Airlines.

I fired off a tweet to this effect, and promptly heard back from @AmericanAir, which made me feel like I had someone from their social media team flying shot gun with me the whole time.

NYC tweet

Our plane took off into the New York sunset, making the return flight to Los Angeles a truly wonderful end to the whole trip.

NYC sunset

 

An intro to Google Contribute – a more benevolent ad suppressor

I have to admit that up until now, I have not heard of Google Contribute. It’s a product that has been out in some sort of a beta form for a few months now and it allows its users to suppress some % of ads for a monthly fee ($2 – 10/month). Essentially, the amount you “contribute” is used to bid against other advertisers for the space where the ad would have ordinarily appeared. You then get an ad-free experience, while the site still does not lose out on potential revenue.

Harris Schachter of Optimizeprime.com has a full review of the product, which I think is worth reading: http://optimizepri.me/google-contribute

Norwegian Dreams: 787 London Gatwick to LAX

This will be a very quick review of my first flight on the 787 Dreamliner.

We flew Norwegian’s Premium class to LA from London Gatwick. The reason for choosing this airline was because they were one of the few that offered one-way tickets and we wanted to fly in Prem. Economy or Business. The price (at about $1,100/person) was right, vs. what BA, Virgin, Delta and others were charging on the same route (Air New Zealand Premium Economy was about $400 more expensive per ticket).

We flew out on May 21st, which was a Thursday. It was a clear and warm-ish day in London, which made the drive to Gatwick from Kensington worth the while. Though Gatwick is somewhat out of the way for those living in central London, we managed to get there without any traffic, which was likely due to it being a weekday, post rush hour.

Norwegian flies out of the South terminal, which also houses Virgin Atlantic, so there were a lot of customers going long haul. The check in area looked pretty messy, with a long line of people snaking around, waiting to check in. However, as Premium ticket holders, we just walked to the very front and were given our boarding passes in a matter of minutes. The agent couldn’t have been sulkier, but she was not mean or unpleasant. Along with the BPs, we were also given two lounge invites and Fast Track stickers.

Fast Track was…fast. Unlike Heathrow, where everyone is an Elite, here the FT line was empty and we breezed through it in seconds. The same couldn’t be said for the normal security line, where the wait must have been close to 20 minutes. After collecting our belongings, we proceeded to the No. 1 Lounge, which serves as the main contract lounge for airlines flying out of the South Terminal (once again, with VS being the notable exception).

The lounge was busy but quite nice. I’d say, it was a step above Galleries Lounge in Heathrow, in terms of decor and things on offer. It’s a two floor setup, with more of a dining arrangement on the first floor and a cafe/lounge setup on the 2nd. We made our way upstairs and grabbed a table in order to get food. There are actual menus at each table, which explain that you can get food from the salad bar as well as order one made-to-order dish from the kitchen. Drinks are complimentary also.

We both ordered lamb kofta, grabbed some delicious soup from the self-serve bar, along with a variety of salads. The kofta was delicious, if a bit small in size (you have an option to order another entree for GBP 4). The beer of choice was Estrella, and there were also coffees and teas, as well as liquor, which I didn’t feel like having.

No. 1 Lounge in Gatwick

Sitting area – No. 1 Lounge

After about an hour in the lounge, we proceed to our departure gate. There was a line already there, and no markings or designation for Premium cabin passengers. We waited in the general line, and as we got to the front, I asked the gate agent about premium passengers. She told me that they announced pre-boarding for Premium a while ago, but otherwise didn’t have a priority lane for them. Oh well.
We entered the plane through it’s second door and turned left to the dedicated Premium cabin. It’s a 2-3-2 layout, which creates a great sense of space. The seats are wide (19′) and there is a ton of leg room (46″ pitch). The overhead bins on the Dreamliner are definitely bigger than on other planes (perhaps with the exception of the A380), so our stuff fit there without a problem.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Entering the plane through the jetway

Norwegian Long Haul – Premium Seats

Though Norwegian doesn’t provide amenity kits, they do have a mesh bag with a thick blanket, and they also pass out headphones in nice little cases. The AVOD system is actually an Android-based tablet that’s secured on a swing-out arm, which comes out of the armrest. There are also electrical outlets and USB ports to plug your equipment into.

Norwegian’s amazing blanket!

Android-based AVOD

Of course, the windows are the big thing I noticed. First of all, they are huge! It’s such a welcome change, being able to look outside of something that doesn’t look like a submarine’s porthole. And then they have the automated dimming system, which I was very eager to try.
Norwegian suffers from a bit of a bad rep on its Long Haul flights, due to late delivery of the Dreamliners and its inability to stick to schedule. Fortunately, we didn’t have to experience much of either, as the plane pushed back only 15 minutes behind schedule. Though LGW does service other big birds (the Emirates A380 was parked nearby), it does feel like you’re a bit more important than the rest, when rolling through the tarmac. Around us, it was mostly the short-haul Airbii, 737s and other such planes that dominated the scenery. It was interesting to see an easyJet plane with different livery than what I’m used to seeing.

LCCs crowding the apron

Old school easyJet livery

Soon, we were off, making a big turn over Gatwick and heading northwest for Ireland. I spent the first 15 minutes occupying myself with dimming the window, which I came to realize does not go completely dark, but is good enough at blocking the sunlight that it gives you the opportunity to fall asleep without an eyemask. Also, because it’s gradual, you don’t have to worry about someone pulling up the shade and flooding the cabin with sudden burst of light.

Dimming the windows

There were two meals served during this 11 hour flight. The service was quick on the first meal and very slow on the second. There were only two FAs serving the Premium cabin, and while they were extremely friendly and accommodating, they disappeared between the two meal services and were rarely seen.
The food was OK. Norwegian calls these “Premium meals” and on the first go-around, I had steak. It was dry and not very tasty, but it did the trick. The booze is definitely mid/bottom-shelf, with a strong beer selection than liquor. The pre-arrival meal was light but tasty, with smoked salmon being the feature.
What I did really like were the big cups of coffee that were served – finally! I could sit and enjoy my cup of joe for a good half an hour without needing a refill.

Dinner service

Nice regular-sized coffee cups

Breakfast

The entertainment system was pretty generic (though the moving map on the Dreamliner is great!). I watched a few movies, but was disappointed by the overall selection. It felt like I was browsing Netflix – lots of old movies and TV shows and not enough new releases. Thankfully, I brought my reading with me, so it was easy to pass the time.
Perhaps one of my favorite features was the blanket. Not only was it big and warm, but it was designed in Norway and featured comic-strip type scenes from Norwegian life. I can’t lie – I really wanted to keep it, because it was so quirky and unique! Well done to the airline for that.

The Norwegian blanket – warm and fun

The seats themselves were fairly comfortable. They offered more space than the seats in WTP on BA (we flew the same route last year on the A380), though there was a bit of a lack of lumbar support. No worries, though, as I just put a spare blanket behind my back to solve the issue. My wife had no problem falling asleep, as the seats give a very generous recline – much better than in competing Prem. Economy seats. Weirdly, my seat reclined quite a bit further than hers.

Footrest – better than on the BA A380 in WTP

View of the Premium cabin

Premium cabin seats on Norwegian

The bathroom was spacious, with a door that differs from other airplane types. It slides in as it opens, taking up a bit less space in the process. The Boeing Sky Interior lighting in the lav was a nice feature, as it didn’t fully wake me up.

Lavatory

The single biggest advantage of flying the Dreamliner is its humity – we were both impressed by how much more humid the air on board was. It made a huge difference, especially on such a long flight. The air pressure, which is set to a lower altitude, was noticeable also and as we landed in LAX, we remarked on how good we felt. Neither one of us had this slightly nauseous feeling, as we usually get after long flights, and we attributed it to these two factors. The plane is also much quieter, so it’s easier to dose off without noise canceling headphones.
We departed a sunny London (a rarity) and landed in sunny LA (standard issue weather). The flight was bang on time, arriving at 5pm. There was a small collection of recently arrived planes from Asia, but otherwise TBIT was deserted, making deplaning, customs and luggage collection a breeze.

Eva Air at LAX

Overall, I give Norwegian a B based on this experience. The hard product was great, both in terms of the plane and how its configured by the carrier. The soft product was average (good lounge, friendly FAs, but lousy food and not a whole lot in terms of entertainment and mid-flight service). Given that Norwegian is an LCC and does not have a wealth of experience with long haul or premium service, it’s understandable that they are learning as they go.
Given the price, I would not hesitate to fly Norwegian’s 787 again (as long as it’s in Premium).
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