A Royal Disappointment: a review of Royal Jordanian Dreamliner flight from Dubai to Hong Kong

Do you ever wonder if some companies have not gotten the note that it’s the 21st century?

Closing out the year is always interesting, especially for avgeeks who need to sustain their status with the chosen airline for the following year. As I made plans to go to Dubai from Los Angeles, I realized that the least time-efficient way for me to do so would be to travel through Asia vs. going through Europe. This decision only makes sense once you consider the EQMs being earned on this route vs. going through Europe.

An attractive Premium Economy fare on American Airlines to Hong Kong sealed the deal for me, as that round-trip flight would get me over the 100k EQM mark. Hong Kong isn’t Dubai, however, and I still needed to figure out a way to get there and back. Thankfully, I was able to snag a J ticket on Cathay Pacific to Dubai, making this an easy non-stop flight in the comfort of one of my favorite airlines. Getting back was a much tougher deal, though, as CX showed zero availability for the dates I needed. Interestingly, AA.com gave me an option to book a very indirect flight on another Oneworld alliance carrier, Royal Jordanian Airlines for the same 40,000 AAdvantage miles, all in lie-flat Business on the airline’s flagship Boeing 787-800 Dreamliner. The kicker was that this flight would stop in Amman and Bangkok before continuing to Dubai making the travel time almost twice as long as the non-stop option would have been.

After a bit of deliberation, I decided to book this option and hope that CX would open inventory before the day of travel, so I could switch to a non-stop flight. You can infer from the title of this post that this did not happen and so I got to experience a completely new carrier, their hard and soft product and form an opinion that I hope will help others decide whether they want to travel with RJ in the future or not.



Royal Jordanian uses Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport as its hub. Given the geographical location, RJ can count a number of highly-rated carriers as its direct competitors on several important routes, though it flies to much fewer destinations than the majority of them. I was hoping that sharing the same region as Turkish, Qatar, Etihad and Emirates would mean that Royal Jordanian is aiming high. Unfortunately, I found them to be the absolute opposite – a carrier that struggles to deliver the basic product, even in its premium cabin on one of its longest routes.



I arrived in Dubai International a couple of hours before departure. RJ flies out of the fairly drab Terminal 1, shared by a bunch of other tenant airlines. This terminal compares poorly to Emirates’ own Terminal 3, and though this isn’t a knock on RJ, it doesn’t add to the experience. The staff at check-in are just contractors, not RJ employees, and so they are limited in what they can do. For instance, even though I was booked all the way to HK, they could only change my seat for the initial leg, requiring me to carry out the rest of the seat changes in Amman.

Dubai Terminal 2

DXB Check-in Counter


DXB Terminal Train

The lounge, likewise, is a third party Ahlan DIH Lounge, located on the second floor above T1’s duty free stores. The lounge is big, serves hot dishes (most are middle eastern) and a selection of beverages, both alcoholic and not. Interestingly, it’s the same lounge used by Saudia and I think there were both Saudi nationals, as well as US military personnel waiting for a flight there. Though the food was uninspiring, I made the very wise decision to eat there ahead of my flight.

DXB T1 Duty Free

DXB Contract Lounge

View of Duty Free area from the Lounge floor

About 40 minutes prior to departure, I left the lounge and walked over to the gate. It was obvious that the flight wasn’t going to depart on time, even though there was absolutely no communication from the gate staff. At some point, a couple ran towards the gate, thinking that they were late, and though they were turned away, they triggered a mass pileup of other passengers, who thought that now was the time to line up. Airport employees yelled at everyone to go back, to no avail, and at some point I asked them to update people on when the actual boarding would happen, as it was well past that time.

RJ Gate Area



Ultimately, the process started and I was one of the first passengers to board this fairly new Dreamliner. What was absolutely startling was insanely huge entrance into the plane. The area that separated Business and Economy (the same area where we boarded) was so incredibly spacious that I had to do a double-take. You could fit at least another row of economy seats and still have a ton of space left over. There was a giant counter for a bar (though it was never used for the purpose), and you could run a sizable yoga class during the flight with at least two rows of 5 people participating.

View of the “Workout Area”

Another View of the “Workout Area”

Seats in Business were arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration. They were made of plush beige leather and were quite deep. Opposite the seats were huge AVOD monitors. Though I was initially excited for them, I quickly realized that they were one of the worst things about RJ, a detail which I’ll describe later.

View of the Seats and AVOD

Another View of the Seats

The cabin was about half-full and I am guessing economy wasn’t full either, as boarding finished pretty quickly. Though we were delayed, we ultimately pushed off and were in the air about 45 minutes after the original departure time.


The flight to Amman was 3.5 hours, so a full service was promised in Business. There were to flight attendants in the cabin, though at times I thought that only one was working (while at other times, it felt like nobody was there). When the service commenced, I was greeted in a very cold manner, something that seemed to persist throughout the flight. In fact, this continued all the way to BKK, where the crew was swapped for a fresh one, some of whom were from Thailand, and only then did I encounter some genuine hospitality.


The welcome drink on RJ is an Arabic coffee and while it’s a nice, culturally-relevant gesture, it’s not a drink I enjoy. The initial drink service, once in-flight, was limited to bubbles, wine and beer. There was no hard liquor on board on this or any subsequent flights. If you were hoping for a G&T or a whisky, good luck. I settled for bubbles, though I later tried Jordanian wine (and didn’t enjoy it).

Arabic Coffee

Bubbles and Nuts

Dinner entree options were Lamb Madras, Stuffed Chicken, Salmon Teriyaki or Penne Arrabbiata. I asked the grumpy FA what she thought the best dish was and she told me the salmon. Now, I am not a picky eater and I have never not eaten any meal on a plane, whether in J or Economy. It’s actually fun to experience different in-flight food and I think that it’s so rare to be able to sit there, eat a meal, be disconnected from the world, and just watch a movie. Well, this was the first flight in my life where I first gagged when I tried the food, then suppressed the desire to throw up and ultimately decided that for my own safety, I shouldn’t touch any more of it. The salmon smelled of heavily spoiled fish. The sides (potato cubes) were drenched with something that made me imagine having diarrhea in an airport in a foreign country and so it was only the bread that I felt was safe enough to consume without having nightmares. Awful! There was no other drink service offered once the food was served. I had to ask for it, which required pressing the FA button to summon the elusive attendant, as they didn’t really spend much time after the meal service looking after passengers.

Royal Jordanian Dinner & Drinks Menu


A few notes on the cabin itself. As I mentioned, there was a football field of an area between Business and Economy, so you could stretch, train for the Olympics or assemble a small plane within a plane to entertain yourself. There was only one bathroom for the entire Business cabin, which was shocking, given that you are sharing it with over 30 people. Inside, there weren’t any real amenities, but worse, instead of using paper towels, RJ stuffed Kleenex. Anyone who has tried to pull a few Kleenex tissues out of a paper towel dispenser on an airplane with wet hands knows how futile the task is. Clearly, people were taking out half a pack worth of tissues at a time, leading to empty dispensers half-way through the flight. It’s as if nobody on RJ has tried to use a bathroom and washed their hands afterwards, as this is such an obvious thing to realize!

Lavatory with Kleenex instead of paper towels

Another infuriating bit about the cabin was that the famous dimming windows were centrally controlled, meaning that I could not choose to adjust it myself. This was terrible for those who wanted to dim it during the day portion of the flight or for those who wanted to keep it fully “open” at night to look at the lights of cities below. Again, I don’t understand why passengers on a Dreamliner can’t have control over their own window shade.

Finally, the pièce de résistance of RJ incompetence was its entertainment screen and AVOD system! First of all, these screens were set on max bright by default. The background color for all PA announcements was white and the screens turned on during each such event (of which there were way too many and, given they were in English and Arabic, they were long as well). Imagine that you’re sleeping in the dark plane and all of the sudden a giant floodlight is illuminated onto your face. You wake up in total shock only to hear an update from an FA that they are about to do in-flight duty free service. While you could control the brightness ONCE the screen was on, it defaulted back to this “atomic bomb brightness” every time it was turned off. It made me appreciate American’s dark PA screens which do not disturb passengers.

This wasn’t it, though. The movie selection was, at this point, predictably awful. I think there were a dozen English-language releases from 2018, a bunch of Bollywood movies and then older titles. The kicker is that most of these movies were unwatchable because RJ seems to have ripped them off Limewire or some other torrent service and the pixelation, formatting and sound made most of these films truly unwatchable. I thought of giving a few of the foreign-language films a whirl, but the pixelation was so bad that I couldn’t actually read the subtitles!

Pixelated Movies

So, between awful/borderline poisonous food, centrally controlled dimmers and an absolutely wild AVOD system, there was nothing on board that could keep a soul entertained besides going to sleep. Thankfully, the seats were not terrible (though by no means were they excellent to sleep on). When unfolded, they were pretty wide at the widest point, though fairly narrow up top and at the foot well. On some of the seats, you could also feel the dip between the back support and the seat cushion, meaning that your sleeping surface wasn’t smooth. The pillow was no Casper and the blanket was on the thin side and made of a fleece-like material. Leather isn’t a great surface to sleep on, so I took advantage of not having a neighbor and used the other blanket as a sort of a bedsheet. I was able to sleep for the majority of each flight (and I dreamt about Casper bedding on American).

Business Class Seats on RJ 787


A quick note on the amenity kit: blah. The pouch was branded as “Acqua Colonia” – an attempt at a luxury brand that nobody has ever heard of. Inside was the usual amenity kit set with nothing to distinguish it from anything else. The only nice touch were these stickers that told the FAs whether to wake you up for breakfast service (on the AMM-BKK leg) or not and the eye mask, which was the one item that you have to have with the super-bright screens on board.

Royal Jordanian Amenity Kit

RJ Meal Stickers


Upon arriving to Amman, we were forced onto a bus. Interestingly, the bus for J passengers was pretty luxurious and they slammed the doors shut and whisked us away to the terminal before allowing the rest of the plane to unload.

Deplaning from RJ 787-800 in Amman

RJ Luxury Transfer Bus

Walking to the AMM Transfer Area

I was the only person connecting to an onward flight, which, when I walked to an area called “Transfers” caused all sorts of commotion with the security people. There were passengers from another flight going to Baghdad in front of me, and they were taking their sweet time going through the metal detectors. I, however, received a massive stare down from every guard there, and once I walked through the detector, one of them came over and without asking for permission, reached down into my t-shirt and pulled out my gold chain, on which is a cross. He examined it and shoved it back. Then, as I was scraping my jaw off the ground and getting my backpack, a door opened and another security dude appeared and yelled at me, asking where I was going to. Once he heard Hong Kong, he said “OK, you go” and closed the door.

Literally, WTF?

The Amman airport is pretty big and modern-ish. Its roof has a unique design, courtesy of Foster + Partners, which references the roofs of bedouin tents with 127 domes on the ceiling. The rest of the airport is uninspiring at best and the fact that people can smoke in it is a throwback to times I thought have passed.

Amman Airport

AMM Bedouin Domes

Amman Queen Alia Airport Gate Area

RJ’s lounge is an expansive 2nd floor area, which overlooks the terminal. Its footprint is enormous, however it doesn’t do much with all that space. Once you get there via one of two elevators, you have to stand in line to be checked in. Then it’s a dash to one side of it, where you can get food. I read in reviews that the food was a selection of middle eastern mezze plates, but in reality it was cold falafel, some really fatty hummus and other generally tasteless items. There was a bar with booze behind it and no bartender. He appeared towards the end of my stay, and I saw him make drinks, but I think he does it on his own schedule.

RJ Lounge Entrance

Inside RJ Lounge

RJ Lounge – Dome Views

RJ Lounge Bar with no bartender

RJ Lounge Food spread

The most appalling part was the bathroom, which was small, dirty, old and smelled of cigarettes. The sinks, though made by Villeroy & Boch, were disgusting, cracking and in dire need of retirement. I wouldn’t use that bathroom for more than an emergency stop and I shudder to think of what RJ’s showers look like, if they even have them. Again, the fact that everyone is free to smoke (including employees, who simply sat behind a glass wall inside the terminal) is extremely off-putting.

RJ Lounge Bathroom

RJ Lounge bathroom sinks

I won’t describe the in-flight experience to BKK, as I generally covered it earlier. Of note is the fact that passengers who are connecting to HKK are asked to stay on board, while everyone else exits and new passengers board. This means you’re there for when the cleaning crews come in, witnessing their work. It’s an entertaining hour and a half, but only if you ever do it once and care for such things.

Landing in BKK

The cleaning crew wore Thai Airways uniforms and were very efficient. Their supervisor was on the plane the entire time, ensuring they were doing a good job. The Jordanian crew was swapped for a Thailand-based one, and we finally saw smiles and a little bit of the attentiveness that was missing earlier. The catering from BKK to HKK was also better (meaning that it was average) and I was able to eat, finally.

Departing BKK

Better Catering from BKK and Jordanian Wine

The final leg of the journey to Hong Kong was just over two hours. With daylight pouring in, shades being controlled by a “man with a button” up front and literally nothing to watch on TV, I was forced to confront my own thoughts, a process that I think I welcomed, given that life back at the farm generally doesn’t allow for long periods of contemplation. I think the great realization I landed on was that I’ll never fly Royal Jordanian again, even if it means not going somewhere.

We landed in Hong Kong and, before departing, FAs walked through the cabin twice and sprayed it with “stuff”. I don’t think this was deodorant.

The Crew Spraying Us in HKK

As you can tell, this was a very disappointing experience. I wish that it was still possible to fly from Dubai on Qatar to places and that there were easier ways to redeem miles with that airline. But until the dispute between those countries is resolved, RJ may be one of the few options for OW fliers and this is unfortunate.

Relocating to London: a media ad exec’s experience

On May 28, 2012 a routine Delta Air Lines flight from Minneapolis touched down in London’s Heathrow airport, ushering a new beginning for (at least) one passenger on board.

My arrival to London not only marked a new beginning for my personal and professional lives, but also drew a line under a two year effort to make the dream of work abroad a reality. Since I began my expat existence, I’ve received numerous emails from current and former coworkers and friends asking for advise on all aspects of relocation – from visas to weather, and everything in between. While I greatly enjoy answering each and every one of those emails, I do feel that in repeating myself, I start to gloss over some of the details which may actually prove to be interesting to those who are just starting their foray into the relocation experience.

This blog entry will aim to provide a comprehensive recap of my experience. I thought about making this into more of an advice (do this, not that) column, but I realize that everyone’s experience is unique and the circumstances which eventually get them abroad may differ significantly form mine. Therefore, please treat this as one person’s account, rather than a rule book to follow.

If I did have one broad advice to give, it would be that you should not give up. It is, at times, a frustrating journey, but the payoff is worth it for many reasons. So push on and make your dream come true!


From the moment I graduated from university and moved to New York, I knew I wanted to work abroad. It was one of the main drivers behind going to work for a global ad agency and staying there for quite a few years. Therefore, I can honestly say that the desire was there from the start.

I came to realize fairly early on in my career that in the transient world of advertising and media, connections and good relations matter as much as a good reputation and work ethic. I believed that mine was a longer-term goal, and one that required me to invest time and effort before I could reap the benefits. Therefore, when choices to move companies presented themselves, I opted to stay with my agency – I believed that this loyalty, along with the power networks and the reputation I built up would pay off in the end.

Ultimately, I needed to let those whose support I counted on know that I saw a stint abroad as part of my career progression. By the time the conversation about my relocation became a very real one, everyone who mattered pretty much knew that this was something I wanted, so there wasn’t an element of surprise or shock. I think that if I sprung this onto senior managment last minute, I would not have received the support I ended up getting. Agencies, and their clients, don’t like disruptions in account team structurs. They also don’t like spending money on recruitment fees to bring in replacement talent, so the earlier you start this dialog, the better, in my opinion.


One question that every foreign agency asks is why they should spend money, time and most importantly their precious visa quotas to bring someone in from abroad. It’s a valid question, and one that demands an answer that is grounded in more than just ambition.

In my case, I was working on a global client and already had an extensive relationship with our London office. When an opportunity in the UK opened up, it was for a similar type role that demanded someone who knew how to handle multi-market coordination, and who could start fairly quickly without needing to ramp up. I had the experience of working in a similar account structure, and also had the requisite relationships with our global outposts to take on the challenge.

I think that if I didn’t have this type of experience, or something relevant to point to, it would be tough to justify for the local office to justify the hassle.

Another thing that I believe is truly necessary is to have some strong expertise in something. The funny thing about the US is that it is, by far, the leading market in terms of ad/media tech innovations and people who work on the agency side there are spoiled with access to resources and information – something the rest of the world sorely misses out on. Therefore, there is quite a bit of demand for US talent that actually has something to bring to the table in another market. But don’t be fooled – media folks in other markets are savvy and can read through the BS. So, pitch yourself as someone who has a leg up on the competition, even at home, and chances are, it’s going to set you aside from the domestic competition in the local market.


Probably the funnest and most frustrating element of relocation. I knew that I wanted to leave New York, and if I had my way, I would have moved to Sydney before any other place. London did seem like the easiest place to move to, in terms of international locales, for obvious reasons. It’s also the ad and media hub of EMEA (Europe Middle East and Africa), so it enjoys the scale of servicing many markets and getting significant international budgets from clients. From a career progression standpoint, London was going to win over Sydney, which, despite its coolness factor, serves a very small and isolated Australian market.

I think the key thing is to keep a somewhat open mind and to be prepared to compromise, knowing that your perception of a particular place from visits as a tourist/student may differ greatly from actually living there as a working adult. This was the case for me when Australia did not materialize. The reason for this was that agencies there did not want to go through the ordeal of sponsoring me, though they claimed to be interested in bringing me on board. A useful note is that these were not agencies that were part of my company’s network, so I would have been a new hire for them.

When the call from our UK office came and we started talking about the finer details, like visas, it turned out that the process was a lot simpler when transfering through the same company. The UK has a special visa that allows multinationals to transfer their staff around for fixed term placements. It’s called the Intercompany Transfer Visa (ICT), which is a special variant of the Tier-2 visa. This visa does not have as strict of a requirement and does not have a quota against it, unlike a general Tier-2 (or Tier-1) visa. The downside is that after a maximum of five years, you have to leave the UK as a worker and not return in this capacity for at least a year.

So, while London was not my top choice, it was on my list and, after quickly weighing the pros and cons of waiting for Australia (who knows how long that could have taken) or moving to London now, I opted for door number two. In retrospect, it was one of the best decisions I made in my life which goes to show that you can’t always predict what will happen and just have to trust that you will make the best of it.

I think making a list with at least 3-4 locations that you truly would like (or at least wouldn’t mind) moving to. And if one of these presents itself as a more immediate opportunity, it makes sense to be real with yourself about the feasibility of going after your top choice versus seizing on the one at hand.


Oh man, everyone who has gone through this process (at least in the UK) has told me a story similar to my own. It took a long time, seemingly forever! From the time I started the conversation in January to the time I walked on English soil in late May, nearly five and a half months elapsed. I warn you, just like I was warned myself, that the wait is by far the most frustrating process and it’s one that is largely out of your hands. Having patience, and as much humor as you can muster, is important.

The reason it takes this long is multi-fold:
– You have two HR departments involved. One is trying to hire you (they actually have to hire you and not just “transfer” you) while the other is trying to move you off their roster and P&L.
– Unfortunately, the communication between HR groups is non-existent, so you serve as a conduit, and things can take weeks to get resolved.
– It can take a long time for your new contract to be drawn up. Add more weeks if the terms you agreed on aren’t reflected in it and you have to go back for revisions.
– Finance department of the agency bringing you on board can take ages to green-light the expenses associated with the transfer.
– Immigration lawyers get hired, and they take some time (a week at least) to draw up the necessary forms.
– Once you get all the paperwork in place and submit it to the UK Embassy, a good three months could go by.
– The wait for the visa itself can last up to a month (or longer!)

Once you finally get a visa, there is a mad rush to actually make the move. In my experience, my company was reluctant to buy my plane ticket till the visa was in hand (understandable). The result of this wait was the drastically escalated price of the ticket, which prompted another delay, while Finance re-approved the new cost. This shoulnd’t really be something most people have to encounter if they’re being moved, but depending on the terms of your relo package, you may have to foot the difference in price, even if it’s not your fault that the ticket price increased.

Speaking of which…


This is an important one as it can make your life easier or harder, depending on what you get. Remember this: you won’t get if you don’t ask, so ask for more and be prepared to negotiate down.

The more senior you are (and the more the move is driven by your company’s need and desire), the more leverage you have in negotiating a good package. In my case, I was moving across in a middle management position so I was able to secure a fairly basic relo allowance that consisted of airfare, two weeks worth of housing and visa support. I did, however, ask for a month of housing and an annual return flight home, knowing that I would have to compromise down.

Hearing from other people, it sounds like they either got nothing except the flight + visa or they were able to get much better packages, which included a month or more of housing.

Housing, above all else, is probably the most important thing to try and get. It gives you a bit of breathing room to find a more permanent place to live. You can’t underestimate how crazy your life will be in the weeks leading to the move and the several months after, especially considering that your new work will expect you to hit the ground running after all this time trying to get you over.


So once you finally move, there are a ton of things that will hit you like a brick and that you’ll have to deal with. The specifics will depend on the country you have chosen to move to, so I will speak from my UK experience.

1. The first thing I got was a mobile number. I brought my iPhone over from the States, which was thankfully unlocked, so all I had to do was get a Pay Monthly SIM, which was SO much cheaper than in the US (£15/month for unlimited data, 300 min and 3,000 texts). No contract was needed.

2. The job itself started the next day after the move. Thankfully, my colleagues and management were very understanding of the complexities that come with the move and that in some instances I needed more time to sort things out at home. Establishing what is and isn’t allowed, and getting that flexibility will go a long way toward reducing your stress level.

3. Apartment hunting was something that really couldn’t wait. You can do a lot of research online prior to moving to the UK using sites like Rightmove and Zoopla and get an idea of which neighborhoods offer what. I had a price in mind, but the confusing thing was that the Brits price their rent payments on weekly rather than monthly basis, so a bit of math was needed.

If you don’t have a lot of time to spare, as was the case with me, then hiring a real estate agent is a necessary evil. There are many of them, but Foxtons was the company I employed and they helped me get a place in the time I needed. While more expensive than others, they do have a good sized portfolio of apartments and, in the end, still come out to be cheaper than brokers in the US. I paid about £430 for their services.

Note that if you sign an annual contract with your landlord, you can usually break it penalty-free after six months. Also note that most apartments are rented by private owners as there is not really a concept of buildings being built for rental properties. You may deal with a landlord directly or through an estate company, but it will be a private owner.

4. Healthcare is a confusing topic for Americans as it is completely different in the UK. You first have to apply for a National Insurance Number (NIN), which then enables you to apply for National Health Service (NHS), which is their public insurance scheme. Even if you managed to get private insurance through your employer (likely through Bupa), you still should get NHS.

Getting NIN is easy enough – just call Jobcentre Plus to register and they’ll send you your number. After you have it, you can find your local NHS clinic, schedule an appointment and register for NHS there.

5. Council tax is another foreign concept that really sucks. It’s basically a tax that is charged by whatever borough you live in and is calculated using a whole bunch of variables, such as the type of the building, the number of people who live in your flat, etc. I moved twice in London, and my council tax varied from £60/month to nearly £100/month. The annoying bit is that you have to pay it from your post-tax salary.

6. TV license is another “tax” that you pay after you get your paycheck. It gives you permission to watch over-the-air programming (mainly, the BBC). Even if you don’t have a TV and only watch the BBC online, you are still required by law to pay this fee. It’s about £12/month and something you have to register for.

7. Driver’s license is a fairly difficult thing to get in the UK. As an American citizen, you’re allowed to drive with your U.S. license for a year. Afterwards, you do need to get a UK permit. Note that pay-by-the-hour rental car companies, like Zipcar, are available here but you need a UK driver’s license to register. However, if you have registered for Zipcar in the US before moving, you can use their service without a problem here and don’t need a local permit.

8. How could I forget the bank account saga. Before moving, this may have been the thing that stressed me out the most, as the money laundering laws in the UK make it very difficult to open a bank account for expats. There was nothing but scaremongering going on in online forums, and I was prepared for a lenghty process. In reality, it was simple enough. HSBC only needed a form from my HR guaranteeing my salary to open a checking (current) account. The whole thing took a day and I was set. This is probably true for most major employers, but may not be so for start ups, so do check.

Getting a credit card was more difficult. I needed to wait six months from the time I opened a bank account to get a basic card from HSBC and another year to get a non-basic Amex card. Your credit history does not transfer from the US, so you’re starting from scratch here.

9. Don’t forget that when you travel back to the U.S., you will be un-insured. It was something I realized only after a couple of trips back, when I got the flu and remembered that I no longer had U.S. coverage. NHS doesn’t cover international medical care, so you need to get private travel insurance. It’s not expensive, but just something you need to do.

10. Get out and meet people and say yes to everything. I had a ton of friends in the US and knew everyone in media. Not so here, in London, so you feel like you’re starting fresh and it can be daunting and exciting at the same time. If you put in the effort, you will get a lot of satisfaction from new friendships and experiences. Work will also be a challenge for a host of reasons you didn’t expect, so dive right in.

What else?

Well, the weather is something people wonder about. Generally, it’s more temperate than in the States. It does rain a fair bit, but the winters are warmer (about 45 F) and it rarely snows. The summers can get warm, but are generally cooler than in the states, with the average temperature in the high 60s or low 70s. In 2012, there was not a lot of sunshine in the summer months, whereas in 2013 we had a very good summer, so I can’t say definititively.

When it’s warm and sunny, London is the nicest city in the world to be in. There are a lot of parks and you can spend days on end outdoors. It’s easy to get to anywhere in Britain by train, if you fancy hiking or biking or other activities.

It does get dark early in the winter, but just enjoy the museums, theater, etc. after you get off work. And remember, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece are only 2 hours away by easyJet!

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



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.


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.



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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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


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



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.”


Hilton Garden Inn FCO

Friday, September 22

9:15 am


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!


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.



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.



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.


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.


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:


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

Airbus A321T with lie-flat seats


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).


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.


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.

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


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?




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.
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).

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.



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.


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.


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.

backopack3 backpack2 backpack4 backpack5 backpack6

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!


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.



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.


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.


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).


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.


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

Twitter 1

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.




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.


hotel room


March 11, 2016


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


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.


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.




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.


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.


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


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


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.


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).