Delta sends me a gift

February 2, 2023

Out of the blue (literally and figuratively), UPS delivered this to me today (see pictures below) from Delta Air Lines to thank me for being a Five Million Miler.

Actually, it’s now 5,474,209 miles, but who’s counting?

The strange gift brought a number of questions to mind. I wondered why it took 27 years for Delta to acknowledge becoming a Five Million Miler. I don’t have a clue.

Also, I hadn’t realized that I reached that milestone so long ago. I was then 48 years old. Delta might wonder why by now I have not flown at least 6 million miles, or even 8 or 9 million.

The answer, I realize, is two-fold: First, about that time (1996) Delta started making program mileage more difficult to accumulate, and, second, I began to spread my flying to other carriers. Meaning on airlines that flew direct to where I needed to go rather than connected through hubs.

Over time, ticket prices also became a factor in not flying exclusively on Delta. Fares were often cheaper on other airlines. I have to admit as well that when Delta’s complimentary upgrades to the front cabin dried up, I was less inclined to book DL even when fares were competitive.

Actually, I prefer to fly Delta. But the fare difference now is usually stark. Which is why I used United to fly with my family to Spain right after Christmas.

And why I will be taking two folks to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, and then to Cape Town, in late February using United’s nonstop from Newark. Those three tickets could have been on Delta, but the Premium Economy fare difference was $800 each when booked, so a no-brainer.

In late March my wife and I will spend a couple of days in Manhattan to celebrate milestone birthdays and then fly to Thailand. I bought Premium Economy tickets on Singapore Airlines to Bangkok via the carrier’s namesake city-state (JFK/SIN is an 18.5 hour nonstop). That, too, is lost revenue for Delta and its partners because their fares were not in the ballpark by nearly a grand each.

In 2022 I think I flew Delta twice, and only domestically. So far in 2023 I have nothing booked on Delta, my favorite airline (for being the least-worst, but, still, it IS the least bad of a sorry lot), thus the slow creep up to 6 million miles.

The large plaque is a nice thank-you, and I appreciate it. I wish, instead, they’d just given me several first-class upgrades.

As it is, I am incensed that the fancy box this thing came in didn’t include hanging hardware!

Home from Europe the hard way

January 30, 2023

After two weeks in Spain and Portugal over the New Year holiday, the time came for my wife, daughter, and me to fly home from Madrid. I’d booked a bargain fare in Premium Economy on United and two of its European partners, Brussels Airlines and Lufthansa.  The trouble was, getting back to Raleigh (RDU Airport) meant flying Madrid to Frankfurt, there connecting to a Lufthansa 747 over the pond to Washington Dulles, and then on a UA rinky-dink plane to RDU.  Considering how snarled both humongous FRA and congested IAD airports can be, I wondered if we’d make it.  But we did, with surprising ease.

Last week I wrote about the MAD/FRA flight.  After arriving at a hard stand on the Frankfurt Airport tarmac and boarding a bus for the trek to the terminal, it took 40 minutes of continuous walking from somewhere at FRA Concourse B to arrive at gate Z69.

Along the way, we hit an immigration screen where officials stamped our passports. It was very quick and efficient, with no queues.

However, we encountered one escalator and a very long moving sidewalk out of service, something I don’t expect from efficient Germans. Times have changed since such breakdowns wouldn’t be tolerated in Germany.  Not so long ago someone would have been fired for any delayed repairs.

What airport except Frankfurt has a “Z” concourse?  What’s next, AA through ZZ?

We need not have rushed.  The gate agents at Z69 announced boarding would be late due to “aircraft not ready” though it looked fine sitting there, a 787-8. Again, I thought, it must be incompetence by Lufthansa, shocking to me. Any delay potentially jeopardized our close connection at Dulles to United.  It was then nearly 12:30 PM and the scheduled departure was 12:55 PM. We’d never make that departure time, I realized.

Gate personnel was busy offering upgrades to Business from Premium Economy for $319 and from Economy for $429. And upgrades from Business to First, but I didn’t get that cost.

Long queues began to form waiting to board, but LH personnel seems blasé about the ticking away of time and our connection conundrum.

Boarding finally began for disabled folks and families with children at 12:34 PM.  I was mistakenly IDed as aged and decrepit and beckoned forth to board early. I didn’t argue.

Lufthansa’s Premium Economy 747 seats were quite comfortable.  Strangely, the airline sandwiched a small economy section between Business Class and Premium Economy.

In my seatback pocket, I found a set of cheap economy earplugs that worked better than expected.

Doors closed at 1:12 PM, and the Captain claimed the flight would be on time arriving Dulles despite the delayed boarding.  However, we sat at the gate and didn’t push back until 1:23 PM.  The Captain didn’t make further comment.  I guessed we would be 20-30 mins behind schedule, which was avoidable. I’m sure the 747-8 could have made up time had LH wanted, but that didn’t happen.

The two mediocre tray meals en route are not worth describing. However, the cabin crew was super nice, all very senior.

Beyond the bigger Premium Economy seats, Lufthansa didn’t seem to care much about differentiating its PE product in a distinct cabin. At least not on that aircraft. As I said, the Premium Economy rows were simply positioned between Economy rows. It looked to me like the food and beverage service was also identical. I didn’t care enough to ask.

Still, I’m glad we were on Lufthansa and not United. I can’t get over my dislike of United. Delta’s not that great, either. They just suck less and treat me better because of my DL Lifetime Platinum status.

Flying over the North Atlantic Ocean, I mused that I’d be happy if we got home on time. Or even late. UA’s operation doesn’t inspire confidence. We were flying United simply because the PE fare was such a bargain. I’m not saying I wouldn’t make the same decision again.

Despite being 25 minutes late to Dulles, and being on a 747 seated over the wing halfway back on the plane, and having to ride one of those stupid, ancient Dulles “mobile gates” (and being stuck at the rear), we zoomed through immigration thanks to Global Entry. Then got stuck by slow UA gate agents who couldn’t figure out how to print our IAD/RDU boarding passes. Then got stuck again at the TSA screen despite being Pre by incompetent agents who wanted to check and test everything we had. Yet we STILL got to gate C24 for UA6167 to RDU by 6:07 PM, and boarding didn’t begin until 6:20 PM.

My wife and I both (inexplicably) got upgraded to first class, though our daughter did not. Maybe because we bought premium economy tickets?  I don’t know.  But I enjoyed the G&T I ordered on board the E170 just the same.

And, best of all, the flight was on time to Raleigh.  Madrid to Frankfurt to Dulles to Raleigh, and all good service with connections made. Such schedule reliability should be a yawner, but of course it’s a bloody miracle these days when it happens.

Four intra-European flights

January 23, 2023

On vacation to Spain and Portugal with my wife and daughter from late December to early January, I was on four domestic flights in Europe operated by three European airlines through six airports (Brussels/Madrid on Brussels Airlines, Barcelona/Granada on Iberia, Lisbon/Madrid on Iberia, and Madrid/Frankfurt on Lufthansa). The experiences ranged from okay measured by schedule reliability to marginal/tolerable by standards of comfort and service.

Brussels to Madrid on Brussels Airlines

Wow! Arriving from Washington Dulles to BRU Airport at Zaventum was a revelation.  I often worked in this airport for a year and a half 1975-76 when I managed a student charter flight business.  It sure has changed for the better: now modern and puts Dulles to shame.

After a brisk 20-minute walk from the United flight to the A concourse gates (Schengen country gates), our passports were stamped but no additional security screen, a blessing. We had time to make a stop or two for water at free refill stations and at lavs.  The Brussels Airport A concourse was open, modern, and bright, a welcome contrast to the dingy dungeon feeling of Dulles Airport.

The milk run to MAD Airport was an A320 in an all-coach configuration. First two rows were designated “priority” which is the Euro form of domestic first class. Still economy seats, but center seats aren’t assigned.

The flight was full. Scarce overhead space ensued, and the flight fell behind schedule by 25+ minutes leaving but made up most of that in flight.

Despite booking a premium economy fare, no special boarding or seat assignments for us on that flight. We were in 20DEF behind the wing. The absence of “premium” was no problem; it was adequate to get there. I was, though, surprised that the PE fare basis code was meaningless. 

It was a cramped and uncomfortable flight to Madrid. The seats did not recline.

My first impression of the MAD Airport was of enormity. Our flight taxied well past a gigantic modern terminal to a hard stand (no jetway) on the tarmac apron adjacent to a much older terminal. We deplaned via airstairs and were transferred to the building aboard a bus. 

A quick walk to the long taxi queue and we zipped downtown to our hotel in a Tesla (€30 fixed price from the airport). Our driver expertly pushed the limits of the electric car both on the highways leading to the city and navigating heavy city street traffic.

Barcelona to Granada on Iberia

We chose the “Aerobus” which left from the central square across from our hotel to get to BCN.  It cost about $6 each and left every 5 minutes and was 35-45 minutes to the airport in the early morning.

Barcelona Airport is new and modern, again making me think of the sad state of IAD and EWR airports back home.

I’d booked us on Vueling, Iberia’s LCC (low-cost carrier), an A320 to Granada.  It was another milk run like the Brussels Airlines flight.  Check-in was not required because I had printed our boarding passes weeks before at home, something U.S. carriers can’t do.  We proceeded immediately through the security screen.

My Priority Pass app showed four BCN lounges: 1 landslide and 3 airside (1 international, 1 for the Madrid-Barcelona shuttle, 1 for domestic and Schengen).  We found the Priority Pass VIP Pau Casals Lounge for our domestic (intra-Spain) flight.

Vueling boarded 40 minutes early in strict groups 1, 2, and 3 (front to back).  We were Group 3 (row 6)

I was scolded for having a roller bag that my fare apparently didn’t include, but the gate agent took pity on me and checked it for free.

I discovered plenty of roller bags on board, presumably belonging to customers who had paid for them.  It wasn’t clear. 

Rows 1-4 were designated “premium” and supposedly had extra legroom that was not obvious to me.  A school basketball team of young girls was assigned most of those seats. 

The full flight buttoned up 10 minutes early and pushed back 6 minutes early.  The plane was clean and well-kept and staffed by an efficient, friendly cabin crew who offered zero service on the 1 hour, 15-minute flight (anyway, everything was for sale per the seatback menu, just like in the USA now).

The chairs didn’t recline, not even the premium seats in rows 1-3.  Very tight seat pitch (I’m short, yet my knees brushed the seat in front).  The “Airbus” name is appropriate for such barebones service.

Disembarkation at Granada Airport was strictly by rows, 5 at the time.  We walked from the tarmac to the ancient small terminal where I retrieved my bag after a long wait.

Despite the Spartan comfort and service, I give Iberia (Vueling) high marks for operational efficiency and the customer-facing staff a lot of smiles and great attitudes.

Lisbon to Madrid on Iberia

Lisbon Airport has a reputation for being inefficient, even chaotic, though until that morning I’d never been through it, in or out. Arrivals are said to be particularly unpredictable, with long delays for inbound international passengers.

One observer warned that departing LIS can also be miserable and to arrive four hours ahead.

I figured it couldn’t be THAT bad for an early morning departure (ours was at 7:45 AM), but we still arose at 4:15 AM with the aim to get a taxi at 5:00 AM. I calculated we’d then be at the airport by 5:30 AM, just over two hours before our flight was scheduled.

Careful planning is my mantra, so here’s the full detail of today’s flight experience. I typically observe and record these and other operational elements, perhaps because I spent a career critiquing and improving business processes for over 50 clients:

Left the hostel in the Lisbon Rossio train station at 5:01 AM.

No taxi at stands where long lines had been the day before and where I has been assured by drivers that taxis would be there “24/7”.

Nervously called Central Taxi, the company that had given me a card yesterday (which I’d held onto just in case).

A cab came in 3 minutes. Probably not the one I called, but we claimed it and hopped in.

€15 to the airport. I gave the driver €20 in appreciation.

Arrived at LIS Airport at 5:26 AM (25 minutes, including wait time).

No staff arrived at the Iberia Airlines counters to check my bag until 5:45 AM. Waiting seemed much longer. Airport was swarming with throngs of travelers.

Got to the head of the queue at 6:05 AM. I’d checked in online but still had to show passports to get printed boarding passes that had already been sent to me as PDFs.

Checked my Hartmann roller bag only because Iberia had told me that the fare I paid didn’t allow two carry-on pieces, (I also carry a small backpack).

Joined Boarding Gates queue for security screening at 6:08 AM, through at 6:26 AM. Didn’t seem too fussy about liquids and no removal of shoes or belts.

Gate S14 on N concourse was posted, finally, at 645a. Took 9 minutes to walk there.

Boarding began in groups at 7:05 AM, but why? All boarding groups crowded onto the same bus to go to a remote stand (no jetway again).

We were in Group 2 for seats 8DEF.

The bus was packed-out, totally full (a Covid virus propagation dreamland), and lingered at the terminal until 7:13 AM; arrived at our plane on the ramp at 7:18 AM.

Boarded via airstairs in the rain. Seated 7:21 AM for a 7:45 AM departure.

I noticed once more that so-called “Premium” class seats in the first four rows are the same 3-3 across economy seats as the rest of the plane, except the center seats were left open. I dislike this Euro model of domestic first class. Feels like a cheat.

Premium customers are apparently able to bring on two bags (my fare specifically forbade more than one, which is why, as I said, I checked the Hartmann).

The Iberia A-320-Neo airplane was clean to my eyes.

Buttoned up at 7:44 AM. Few empty premium seats and fewer still in the back, if any.

Noted again that the seats do not recline.

Altogether, I was relieved to get to the airplane in time to make the flight, but wasn’t impressed with Lisbon Airport and would avoid it in the future based on undue stress alone unless in Business Class. Even then, I don’t know if it’s worth it. But our economy fare of $121 each was a bargain, I thought.

No time whatsoever to go to a Priority Pass Club lounge because Iberia check-in didn’t begin until too late.

Zero service en route, as previous two intra-Euro flights.

Landed MAD at 10:17 AM (9:17 AM Lisbon time) and at the gate at 10:21 AM.

Passports were not checked on entry to Portugal or exiting from Portugal via the Lisbon Airport. That’s due to Portugal and Spain being among the 27 Schengen countries in Europe that have open internal borders.

MAD (Madrid Airport) modern terminals are enormous. The airport train from our arrival concourse to baggage claim felt like a longer ride than the one we took the day before from Lisbon to Sintra in the Portuguese countryside.

My bag was finally retrieved at 11:01 AM, 40 minutes after gate arrival. Totally wasted daylight. That’s one reason I never check luggage.

The men’s lav in the humongous luggage retrieval area had only four toilets. Three were out of order or had no paper. Disgusting, and did not jive with the gleaming modernity of the Madrid airport.

I again paid the €30 flat rate taxi into Madrid from the airport, not the €18 bargain of the Barcelona Aerobus (for the three of us).

Madrid to Frankfurt on Lufthansa

LH1123 from Madrid to Frankfurt was scheduled to depart at 8:30 AM from gate E71, so my Lufthansa app informed me.  We left central Madrid in a taxi that arrived promptly at Hotel Europa at exactly 6:00 AM.   

Due to stoplights and traffic, it took until 6:10 AM just to clear the central city, but then only ten more minutes to reach MAD Terminal 2 which Lufthansa uses.

There we joined a long queue at 6:22 AM to check in with LH. Only 2 economy counters were open. Also a “Fast Bag Drop” counter, Business Class, and First Class. No Premium Economy for us.

I asked at the Business Class counter and was brusquely told that PE is Economy, stupid, so get in the Economy queue. Gate agents encounter so many stupid flyers that I couldn’t fault his flared temper and bad attitude.

With no bag to check, all we needed were boarding passes.  LH wouldn’t let me check in online even after painstakingly entering all the data they demanded. But no way to get boarding passes printed without standing in line.

After 25 minutes, we reached a counter. The gate agent said she couldn’t give me boarding passes for the last leg on United IAD/RDU “because it’s a foreign airline” as if the longtime UA/LH Star Alliance partnership didn’t exist. I considered whether a Spanish contractor at a remote airport (Madrid)  might not be trained to know. Certainly, her systems didn’t. I resigned myself to keeping quiet and getting United passes at IAD. A pain and unnecessary inefficiency.

Getting through security was a breeze. No lines and no need to go shoeless or beltless or to remove liquids, after which it was a 12-minute walk to E71.

Figuring this final (of the four) intra-European flights would, like the rest, not offer onboard service, we stopped at the Priority Pass Club lounge across the concourse at E69 for 30 minutes. The lounge had a decent selection of food and drink.

Wish I’d gone down early, though, to stand in the “Boarding Group 3” line, which was quite long by the time we joined.  Since we had paid for Premium Economy and were assigned primo seats 7ABC right behind the dumbed-down Euro version of first class, I wondered why we weren’t in group 2.  A mystery.

Once again we all crammed onto a bus to be driven to a plane parked remotely on the tarmac. So why have any boarding groups at all? The differentiation becomes meaningless using buses.

We missed the first bus, so we were joined by the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals of Boarding Groups 4 and 5 on the next bus.

Choosing a side door to rush out of on such a bus is always a crapshoot. We guessed wrong and had to slug it out with slower travelers when we reached the plane in order to improve our chances of boarding sooner. By then I was very worried about accommodating our carryon.

Finally reaching our row, we found just enough overhead available for every piece. All the stress from check-in to boarding on this United partner reminded me why I prefer to fly either in Business Class on United or on a SkyTeam partner which affords me a special check-in counter and priority boarding.

Lufthansa buttoned up by 8:30 AM (scheduled departure time) and got off the ground by 8:56 AM, which should have had us landing at about 11:00 AM, which would have been on time.

We streaked across the heavens northeast in the direction of Frankfurt. There we had a short connection of 75 minutes to navigate the enormous airport to reach our Lufthansa 747 to Washington Dulles.  

However, we did not land until 10:59 AM and did not reach another (our fourth) remote stand until 11:10 AM.  Our feet finally found the terminal at 11:18 AM, by which time I was frantic to make the connection.  We did, and that’s another story.

En route to FRA, the Lufthansa flight attendants came around with bottled water, which already made LH service better than Iberia or Brussels Airlines on a similar stage length. The seats on that A321 reclined, too. A small thing, like the little bar of chocolate that also came later, but it’s the small customer service touches that make a difference. No knowledge of the level of premium cabin service upfront.

Mid-flight, I made my way to the rear galley to eyeball my fellow passengers and have a gander at the crew. 38 rows total × 6 = 218 seats after accounting for the 10 empty center seats in rows 1-5. All full. I stepped over a foot or two protruding into the aisle.

The Airbus had 2 rear lavs with lines waiting. Only 20 passengers share the forward toilet, however, while the ratio in the back is one lav per 99. I didn’t notice any queueing for the forward comfort room.

It was the fourth intra-European flight for us in two weeks, with few or no empty seats on any of the four. The LH leg was the most tolerable. Heck, it was almost civilized. Maybe it was the slightly better Lufthansa seat pitch and the water and chocolate offered.  Given the just-better-than-miserable conditions of such cramped and crowded airplanes these days in Europe, that little bit of customer service was humanizing in a way the other three flights were not.

Miraculously missing the Christmas meltdown

January 16, 2023

Months ago I booked United Airlines flights on Christmas day to Madrid for me and my family. As the so-called “bomb cyclone” enveloped the U.S. December 22-25, I worried that our trip would be disrupted and obsessively tracked our flights and aircraft.  It was a real Christmas miracle when we found ourselves in Madrid the day after Christmas, having made all three flights to get us there.

Christmas Eve saw record lows in Raleigh at 10-11° F with sub-zero wind chills. No one in our family enjoyed it except our dog. She reveled in the bitter cold, thanks to her thick fur.

We were the lucky ones: no snow or ice, and relatively mild temps. Not the arctic blast, whiteouts, and several feet of snow that hit places like Buffalo.  5000+ flights were canceled on December 23 and many more thousands on the 24th. I expected lots of aircraft and crews out of position with plenty of downstream schedule impacts on Christmas day.

Thus, my compulsive flight tracking.  We were flying a Mesa Air (United codeshare) Embraer E175 Raleigh to Washington Dulles (IAD Airport) and there connecting in less than two hours to a UA 777-300 overnight to Brussels. If all went well, we’d board a third flight the morning of December 26th on Brussels Airways (formerly Sabena) to Madrid, arriving just before noon. 

Somehow, our short flight from RDU to IAD was on time, critical to making the international connection. Flight Aware revealed that our little plane threaded the cancellation needle on Christmas Eve flights IAD/DFW, DFW/IAD, and IAD to frigid Burlington, Vermont. There the plane overnighted before returning (on time) Christmas morning to IAD, and it landed on time at RDU from IAD. It appeared our flight from Raleigh to Dulles would operate on schedule.

I was surprised to find RDU quiet and uncrowded. No lines at the United Premier Access counter, no queue at all at TSA PRE, and few folks at the distant D gates (photo above). Also unexpected were all the Raleigh/Durham Airport stores and restaurants open on Christmas Day.

TSA installed the new turbine-looking 3D luggage scanners at RDU in the fall, and my impression was that they sped things up. Neither did I have to remove a powdered product from my carryon that I take on trips.

We were booked in Premium Economy on the transatlantic leg, fitted with United’s very comfortable seats. However, it’s been many years since I connected via Dulles, and I was curious to see how it went. Gotta be better, I kept thinking, than United’s dog’s breakfast operation at Newark.

We left Raleigh on time and arrived IAD on schedule. A good omen, I thought.

As far as I know, the gangly buses used to move passengers between terminals at Washington Dulles Airport are unique (above photo). I remember them from the 1970s being unreliable. Luckily, we didn’t have to use one that day.

Dulles on Christmas Day was wall-to-wall people, much different from RDU. My first impressions after not being there for decades: claustrophobic low ceilings lit by too-bright, penal institution-ugly fluorescent tubes. Reminiscent of a tired mid-twentieth century Greyhound bus terminal except I remember the bus stations being less grim.  What an embarrassing first sight this airport is to overseas visitors arriving in our nation’s capital.

We made the walk from our arrival gate at one end of the terminal in 17 minutes to the other end (gate C2).  I’ve rarely seen such crowded conditions, with nowhere to sit. Literally, shoulder to shoulder.

We wore masks once at the airport and throughout the flight. Perhaps one in fifty in that wretched place was masked. A few families, but few others. How quickly people forget.

Boarding began at 5:00 PM for a 5:50 PM departure. After six other groups were accommodated, including scores of screaming babies, Premium Economy was allowed to enter at 5:35 PM (misleadingly called “Group 2”). You can see from the photo of the scrum at the gate what a nightmare the boarding process was. Thinking again to 20th century Greyhound days, climbing aboard those big buses was more orderly and civilized.

We were first into the PE cabin and had plenty of space for our luggage, thank goodness. I’d months ago snagged roomy bulkhead seats (20AB) and seat 21B just behind. At 5:50 PM (departure time), people were still streaming by. Even business class just ahead of us was chaotic.

Of course, the romance of flying is long gone—along with a good deal of my warm Christmas spirit by that time.  My holiday cheer had been intact until landing at that madhouse of an airport.  I badly needed a drink, certain to be a joyfulness restorative.

Our United flight left the gate at Washington Dulles one hour and ten minutes late. The captain said good winds and speed would make us “only an hour late” as if that was a good thing. He didn’t have to worry about a connecting flight to Madrid.

The pilot admitted UA held the flight at IAD for late inbound connecting passengers and slow loading of bags without regard to anyone’s Brussels connections. He sounded exasperated that his company had not kept him informed of the delays.

Service on board started with a drink cart. Ruth and I asked for champagne, which wiped the smile from the flight attendant. “I’ll see if we can bring you some,” she replied, curtly. Meantime, she poured white wine for Ruth and a G&T for me.

She never returned with champagne or anything else. So much for Christmas cheer after a flight delay caused by her employer, I mused.

Thereafter, a meal of sorts arrived: “Pasta or chicken?” No explanation of what either was.

Ruth had the temerity to ask the flight attendant which she recommended. “Both are good,” came the quick and well-practiced, canned response.

Admitting defeat, we took one of each. Neither entree was worth describing; even so, “good” is not an adjective that springs to mind.

Meanwhile, I thought, where was that champagne? It never materialized, nor did the promised second round of drinks. Much later, after the meal was cleared, I went hunting for a flight attendant. Having given up on the bubbly, I asked for another G&T. I was met with a frown and a brittle, “Okay!” Eyes averted, back turned. What a crew! I thought.

After that, nothing except small bottles of water.

Certainly, a Christmas night flight to remember in all its small but cumulative slights and poor attitudes, beginning with the Third World airport to sloppy boarding to inefficient gate departure to rude and indifferent on-board service to late arrival.

But United’s premium economy seats were comfortable. Absolutely no complaints there. It was the human element of the shameful operation and the absence of pride that made it a sad and tiresome experience.

I chose United because the fare was significantly cheaper than Delta and other carriers in Premium Economy. I suppose, in a way, we got what we paid for, and so I blame only myself for expecting a higher standard. Probably unrealistic. Next time I’ll spend more to avoid flying United Airlines.

Truth: I don’t expect much more than the roomier seat when flying in Premium Economy. That said, PE comes at a premium price, and for the higher fare, I do expect civility, efficiency, and a modicum of service. 

Coming home, we were on Lufthansa (United codeshare partner). With better service, thank goodness.

Descending over London, I wondered what the BRU airport would look like, my first time back in several decades. I thought it was sure to be better than United’s ruined C and D concourse at Dulles.

One tiny tidbit of positive news for regular UA international flyers is the plug adapter now provided with the onboard headphones in the PE cabin (see photo). About 2019, United converted its fleet to plug receptacles with one small and one large opening which thwarted the use of Bose noise-canceling headphones that are far superior to those provided by the airline in business and premium economy. I couldn’t find an adapter plug that worked until then. So, thanks, United. It’s now packed with my Bose phones.

We landed in Brussels still an hour late but made our connection on Brussels Airways to Madrid.  Big relief!  I’ll save describing the BRU airport and the intra-European BRU/MAD flying experience until next week. 

On balance, I was pleased that the UA operation on Christmas day and overnight successfully transported us from Raleigh to Dulles to Brussels to Madrid.  Especially given the context of contemporaneous nationwide air service meltdowns resulting from the enormous winter storm and bitterly cold weather that played havoc with every airline and many airports.  We got there, and that’s good.  The downsides of the creaky, creepy old IAD Airport and the indifferent United onboard service in so-called “premium” economy IAD/BRU were, in hindsight, less important.  But those negatives do stick in my memory and don’t make me smile and want to fly United again.

At age 75, my first youth hostel

January 11, 2023

I was in my mid-twenties before I could afford a trip to Europe.  Thus I missed the callow-youth, hostel-hopping, vagabond experience of my hippie generation flitting around Europe like butterflies on flowers. Free love amidst clouds of sweet-smelling marijuana smoke while lolling in Amsterdam, and all that. Nope, I was already too old and serious by then.

Fifty years later I finally stayed in a hostel, albeit sans the hippie parts.  It was during two weeks in Spain and Portugal with my wife and our college-age daughter.  I wonder if the Lisbon Destination Hostel in the Rossio train station has ever hosted a guy my age (75 in April).

Our three-bedded room had no private bath or toilet. The lav was shared and down the hall. Luckily, I took PJ bottoms so I didn’t have to traipse about at two in the morning to the john in my skivvies.

I won’t lie and claim I didn’t have my doubts.  After all, I spent most of my life on the road in fancy hotels, a member of nearly every brand’s elite programs.  The hostel was no Hilton Diamond-level accommodation, but it grew on me. Excellent young staff catered to us and remembered all our names. Their advice on things to see and do and places to eat were dead-on.

The place was clean and safe and surprisingly quiet.  In fact, acoustically insulated in a very expert manner.  We heard no extraneous noise aside from the occasional distant rumblings of trains arriving and leaving.

I imagined hostels to be raucous, but fellow guests were sedate and polite. The common areas were full of young people who could easily have been the ages of my grandchildren (if I had any).  Good positive energy and smiles all around.

We chose our own 4-digit code for the electronic door lock. Our door was thick and heavy, through which only a whisper of outside sounds penetrated.

A gigantic breakfast including coffee and a cornucopia of delicious, freshly-prepared food items was €5 each. Meals are eaten at long communal tables (photo below).  We waited on ourselves, then cleaned up and washed up when breakfast was over.  Easy-peasy, just like at home.

A big basket of clothes was €7.50 to be washed and dried. We folded things ourselves. Again, just as at home.  No big deal.

Other Lisbon hotels began at €250 and were not conveniently located. The Destination Hostel was €33/person/night, making it €99 for the three of us. And a unique experience.

I booked the hostel largely based on its central location, though I thoroughly pre-checked its reputation.  Lisbon sprawls, and lodging in the Rossio train station (photo below) is central, making it ideal for walking all over, as we prefer to do. 

The final photo below is of the distinctive horseshoe archways of Rossio.  The arches are the well-known entrances to the lovely old station. The statue between them is the beloved young, dashing, 24-year-old King Sebastian who disappeared in the 1500s on a trek to Morocco, leaving Portugal with no royal heir. The country yet mourns and waits for his return.

21st-century hostels, I now conclude, are for the young at heart as much as for folks with just a few years on the planet.  I might not become a regular hostel backpacker everywhere, but I wouldn’t trade my happy, unique experience there for a Park Hyatt suite.

As the Covid travel fog lifts

December 14, 2022

It’s difficult to grasp that, soon, three years of unprecedented travel uncertainty will have ticked by.  In December 2019 I was wondering whether 2020 would be the year when RDU got a Delta nonstop to China.  I was just returning from the Kruger National Park in South Africa in early March 2020 when Covid changed everything.  Suddenly, my travel future was an impenetrable fog. 

By early May, RDU airport was virtually closed in the face of almost no demand.  In June, finally, I boarded flights to Montana, but did no international flying until the summer of 2021. Talk of a direct flight from Raleigh to Beijing or Shanghai died instantly.  What had seemed a real and bright possibility in December was an absurd and foolish notion not worth discussing by July.

As this year closes, I’ve been reflecting not only on 2022 but on the past thirty-six long months.  Looking back, I’ve done (to my surprise) a great deal of overseas travel despite the challenges: Back to South Africa three times, taking friends and family each trip; Italy; Slovenia; Croatia; and Dubai.

We’re soon off to Spain and Portugal, with one day in Morocco, with posts along the way. 

Then I will visit old friends in Madison, Wisconsin for a few days in late January.

In February I’ll fly with two more friends to the Kruger National Park and to Cape Town in South Africa once more—with more posts from there. 

My wife and I will spend some time in Thailand beginning in late March after a few days at a fine Japanese hotel on Park Avenue in Manhattan. I will certainly report on the flights and how we find both New York City and Thailand in 2023. 

And all that by early April.  Making up for lost time, I guess, made sweeter by taking advantage of short-lived fare deals:  Thank you, Singapore Airlines.  Much appreciated, United.  Danke Schoen, Lufthansa (UA codeshare).

Looking locally, the Raleigh/Durham Airport has sprung back to life with a vengeance.  So crowded was it on the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving that traffic was snarled way, way outside the loop road to the two terminals.  In fifty previous Wednesdays before fifty previous Thanksgivings at RDU, I’ve never seen anything like that.

Airfares from RDU are all over the place.  I got a great SkyMiles award travel deal RDU/JFK in March, yet Delta’s ticket prices from Raleigh to most places on most days, particularly overseas, are just stupidly expensive.  Much as I hate United, I’ve been booking UA for international (or their codeshare partners) because the fares from RDU to foreign lands are dramatically cheaper than DL in Premium Economy and Economy.  Not so to domestic destinations via UA. 

I’ve also compared American Airlines fares to places both here and abroad, but I can’t find fares and schedules that are competitive.  Besides this, my measly one million AAdvantage miles no longer imbues me with sufficient elite benefits to induce me to buy an AA itinerary.  I’m always seated in the back of beyond on American and boarded fifth or sixth after paying more than I would have on Delta, which automatically upgrades me.

New service abounds at RDU, as I’ve previously commented.  Avelo and Breeze are nibbling at the big carriers’ market share the way jackals make a good living snatching morsels from lion kills on the African plains.  I have yet to fly either carrier, but my cousin reports after using Breeze to SFO last week that its “Nicest” class (like domestic first class) was comfortable, cheap, and friendly. I look forward to trying both new airlines next year.

Despite the astonishing rebound in flying, there is no longer even a dream of a nonstop RDU/China flight.  Xi has effectively declared China off-limits to leisure and most business travelers to the point that even St. Petersburg may be a more enticing destination. Although last I heard, Raleigh/Durham has no plans for a direct connection to Russia.

Widebody Raleigh to Atlanta

December 7, 2022

For reasons unknown, Delta is currently flying an international 767-300 a mere 356 miles between Atlanta and my home airport of RDU.  I don’t think that Delta has completed its 767 refurbishing program, but these planes all seem to be the spiffiest ones, configured with four classes: Delta One (business class), Premium Select (premium economy), Comfort+ (a little more legroom), and Economy. 

I’m not complaining.  After all, Comfort+ passengers like me who book those schedules can choose a seat in the premium economy section.  Assuming, of course, that other folks haven’t beaten me to selecting the better seats.

And if I’m lucky enough to get upgraded to first class, then I can lounge for an hour in the comfort of a Delta One lie-flat seat.  Although I doubt Champagne will flow up front on such a milk run.

I checked dates in January, and the aircraft were all the same newest four-class 767-300s.  The planes are scheduled to leave ATL at 345pm and arrive at RDU at 507pm.  The return is from RDU at 650pm with (supposed) arrival back to ATL at 834pm.  However, it looks like those schedules are flying only Monday through Friday.  At least in January (I didn’t look at future months). 

American Airlines has positioned 767s and 777s to RDU for their nonstop RDU/LHR flights for twenty years before Covid.  I used to intentionally book that ORD/RDU flight on AA because I could ride up front in an international widebody, and the times worked for me to get home on a Friday afternoon.  But Delta isn’t flying nonstop again yet RDU/CDG, so these twin-aisle planes are just out and back from and to Atlanta, with no international component originating from or destined for Raleigh.

This isn’t the first time Delta has used widebody planes between ATL and RDU.  To accommodate heavy demand, Delta at one time routinely used L-1011s to serve Raleigh domestically.  The difference now is those big Lockheeds were configured in domestic-only two classes: first and coach.  I can’t recall international three- or four-class airplanes being utilized from RDU before.

But like I said:  I’m not complaining.  It’s a sweet ride at no extra cost while it lasts!

Snagging a Black Friday travel bargain

November 29, 2022

Inundated last week with emails from airlines touting great deals for Black Friday, I picked through the overseas destinations and eventually landed a whale of a bargain on Singapore Airlines.  Most carriers offered rock-bottom international economy fares, but I was on the hunt for a more comfortable way to fly.  I was searching for Premium Economy tickets under $1300 or Business Class under $3200. 

Finding cheap premium cabin fares is easier when travel is discretionary.  My wife and I don’t have to go at all, and we have good flexibility in choosing dates and destinations.  Since Covid hit, we have not been able to return to Asia, so I was especially interested in places like Seoul, Tokyo, Manila, Bangkok, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Not China and, sadly, not Hong Kong.  China would be our first choice to return to beyond our borders were it not for President-for-life Xi’s zero Covid policy lockdowns and his adversarial attitude regarding Americans.  The soul of Hong Kong, once a magic place of sheer delight, has been destroyed by the thuggish Xi police state, made worse by Xi’s severe Covid policies.  We deemed it too risky to travel there.

By and large, the best deals were from major gateways, especially New York’s JFK and EWR.  I knew going in that I’d probably have to book Raleigh to New York separately.

Cathay Pacific Airways

Cathay has always been a stupendously good carrier, and thus it pains me to say that, from the start, I rejected its offerings from contention because it’s based in Hong Kong.  Since democracy was smashed by China and owing to Xi’s Zero-Covid Policy, Hong Kong has been closed more than open since 2020.  As I said above, it’s too risky to visit or connect there.

That said, Cathay advertised PE for $1350 to Hong Kong and $1560 to Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City, both excellent fares in Premium Economy to those destinations.  Business Class enticements were even better: a cheap $3350 to Tokyo and just $3200 to Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.  I wish I could see myself clear to connect through Hong Kong.

Singapore Airlines

Even more than Emirates, Singapore is arrogant and thinks mighty highly of its grandiose service.  I grant that all my flying experiences on board Singapore (starting in 1987) have been memorable.  The airline hasn’t often sent me discount offers, so I paid close attention to the SQ email.  This one was a gem, with great deals in Economy, Premium Economy, and Business Class to many Asian cities.  Such as to Bali (Economy $729, Premium Economy $1,029, Business $3,499), to Manila (Premium Economy $1,099, Business $3,599), and to Bangkok (Economy $729, Premium Economy $1,029, Business $3,499). The airline’s home base of Singapore was more expensive (Economy $849, Premium Economy $1,299, Business $4,699), but still not bad.

I leaped at the chance to fly to Bangkok for a paltry $1029 in Premium Economy and began researching dates. I didn’t expect it to be easy, and it wasn’t. Predictably, it was like playing Whack-a-Mole. The magic thousand-dollar fare wasn’t available on every flight every day and finding the right combination itinerary outbound and return took a couple of hours of concentrated experimenting. 

Eventually, I won the prize with an outbound routing on the SQ 18 hour, 50 minute nonstop from JFK to SIN, connecting after a four-hour layover SIN to BKK. Returning was Bangkok to Singapore with a two-plus hour connection to the SIN/EWR 18 hours, 10 minute nonstop.  So leaving from JFK and returning to Newark.

All for $1029 per person in Premium Economy on the long hauls.  Singapore flights to and from BKK do not have PE cabins, but SQ allowed me to choose seats in the forward-most coach cabin on those segments just behind Business Class.  I didn’t realize that Singapore usually charges extra for coach seats near the front.  Anyway, the SIN/BKK flights are under 3 hours, tolerable in Economy.

Delta to NYC

That left me to get to New York and back.  Delta was mum on Black Friday discounts, but at Delta.com both dollar fares and award seat mileages RDU to JFK and EWR/RDU were cheap for the March 2023 dates I’d booked on Singapore.  I opted to “pay” 14,000 miles to JFK and 9,000 miles returning from Newark.  Arguments ensue as to what those SkyMiles are worth these days, but if I assign a one-penny-per-mile value, then the round trip dollar equivalent was $230 each.  The actual dollar fares were in fact over $300 on the same flights and dates.  In any event, I am happy with the fares, and Delta immediately upgraded me and my wife to Comfort+ and put us on the first-class upgrade list.

Using that calculation, RDU/BKK cost a total of $1259 round trip per person in Premium Economy.  I am pleased to get to Bangkok in relative comfort for such a bargain price.

Manhattan hotel deals

Since I had to procure separate tickets to and from New York, my wife and I decided to fly up early and spend a couple of days in the City before leaving for Asia.  That led to my discovery that booking a room via Travelocity versus direct booking at hotel websites often yielded a better rate without prepayment.  The hotel sites usually said “pay now” for similarly low prices.

Even better, Travelocity promised I’d get an extra 10% “Black Friday” discount on any property booked through that portal.  After consulting with my good friend, born-and-raised New Yorker and lifelong hotel expert Joe Brancatelli, I reserved a 400+ sq. ft. corner room at the elegant Kitano Hotel at 66 Park Avenue in Manhattan at a manageable $316 per night.  The Kitano is just four blocks from Grand Central Terminal and easy walking distance to most things in midtown.

Once we land in Bangkok, then what?

I don’t know yet.  Do we stay in Bangkok, a city we know well, for a day or two before traveling elsewhere?  Decisions and plans are yet to be made.  We have about ten days in Thailand, and I’m sure we’ll think of something.

Invasion of the market share snatchers

November 21, 2022

OH, NO! Avelo Air and Breeze Airways are invading my home airport, Raleigh/Durham (RDU), with metaphoric teeth bared to gobble up market share from the Big Boys!  HELP!

Hold on a sec—how can that be?  Delta dominates RDU with flights to everywhere.  Niche airlines would be nuts to start service here, right?  Wouldn’t they lose their shirts?  

What happened to RDU being a “focus city” for Delta?  Meaning Delta would offer so many flights to so many places from RDU that the company sucked all the oxygen from the room, er, the Raleigh/Durham Airport.

Covid happened, that’s what. 

With thousands of employees laid off or offered early retirements during the pandemic, Delta, like United and American, can’t get enough planes and crews in the air to meet the sudden surge in people flying again.  Delta was forced to cut back on its expansion plans from RDU and, worse, to withdraw from markets and reduce frequencies to markets it already served.  With demand skyrocketing, the niche players are coming to town.

Avelo and Breeze have done their homework.  The two carriers are hoping to hive off some share by offering nonstops to destinations the other guys don’t serve anymore, thus chipping away at connecting traffic at the big hubs.

Back in July 2018, Delta made a big splash when it designated RDU a “focus city,” which means more nonstops and easier coast-to-coast access.  A focus city is characterized by most passengers beginning or ending their trips there, contrasted with a hub that has flights to and from many more cities with the majority of the passengers connecting to other cities.

I was there when Delta Senior VP of Network Planning Joe Esposito spoke in 2018 at a breakfast meeting of Raleigh’s Regional Transportation Alliance.  He bragged, “We’ve been making major investments in the community over the last 10 years and have geared up to handle the big business market [in the Research Triangle]. … We now serve all the major business markets.”  At the time, Delta was RDU’s busiest airline with about 80 departures per day carrying one-third of all passengers to 27 destinations, including Paris CDG.

Delta then kicked off more service with 3 daily nonstops to ORD (competing with AA and UA nonstop flights from RDU), adding Chicago to 17 new nonstop destinations since 2010, including Nashville, Austin, and Seattle (the latter competing with daily Alaska Air service to Sea-Tac). There was even 2019 speculation that RDU would eventually be upgraded to hub status.

Then came Covid.  I took photos like the ones in this May 2020 post at RDU when no one was flying.

By March of 2021 Delta had cut such focus cities as Nashville and San Jose, leaving only RDU and AUS.  Raleigh and Austin aren’t dominated by other carriers, so the traffic of early 2021 sustained Delta’s RDU service.  Delta even added nonstops to JAX and Las Vegas.

By October of this year, however, Delta’s chronic aircraft and crew shortages caused the airline to scale back drastically.  No more Chicago, Philly, Hartford, Indy, or Nashville nonstop flights.  Delta stopped flying nonstop from RDU to these markets:

Which resulted in Delta’s market share at RDU shrinking considerably in the year from Sep 2021 to Aug 2022. Including Republic, small carriers by then garnered more than 32% of the market:

Thus the RDU void that Avelo and Breeze now see as an opportunity.

Breeze Airways is David Neeleman’s latest start-up (he is famous for launching Jet Blue).  Its cabins are called Nice (the usual uncomfortable domestic coach), Nicer (akin to Delta’s Comfort+, it’s a coach seat with a bit more legroom), and Nicest (like every other airline’s first class, but with little on-board service). Breeze flies A220-300 (the only ones with first class), Embraer E190, and E195 aircraft. 

Neeleman means to pick off some market share by flying nonstop to places Delta and other RDU airlines are neglecting.  Breeze’s new RDU flights beginning in 2023 are:

Hartford – begins Feb 16; two weekly flights (Thursday and Sunday).

New Orleans – begins Feb 16; four weekly flights (Monday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday).

Providence – begins Feb 17; two weekly flights (Monday and Friday)

Meanwhile, Avelo already flies from RDU to New Haven and will add Raleigh-Durham as a base with 6 new Florida routes (and 50 new RDU employees):

Orlando International Airport (MCO) – begins Feb 2

Tampa International Airport (TPA) – begins Feb 3

Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (FLL) – begins Feb 16

Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) near Fort Myers – begins Feb 16

Sarasota Bradenton International Airport – begins Feb 17

Avelo was founded by former Allegiant Air executive Andrew Levy.  It uses all-coach 737-800 airplanes, emulating Southwest.  Most seats are a tight 29” pitch, with some near the front at 35” (no first class).  On-board service is minimal.  Think Spirit or Frontier.

Breeze and Avelo are offering discounted start-up fares from RDU.  I plan to book both and write about the experiences once the dust settles early next year. 

Frankly, I don’t expect much in the way of seat comfort or onboard service, but I have to face that my flying choices have radically changed.  Delta, American, and United have diluted their loyalty programs so completely that not much is left to attract me if Breeze, Avelo, and their ilk are offering nonstop flights to places I’d otherwise have to connect to, along with competitive or cheaper fares. 

No matter how much I despise the austere service and seat discomfort of carriers like Breeze and Avelo (and I do hate it), I wouldn’t be surprised if this sudden invasion of the market share snatchers isn’t successful in eroding Delta’s margins at RDU.

What the airline email really meant

November 15, 2022

Learn more about Premier qualifications and benefits below. We look forward to flying with you soon.

I received this nice message (above) from United recently, and, after careful study, I believe that I’ve translated the real meaning of verbiage in such phrases as:  “With travel now in full swing, our standard qualification requirements are returning. But we are giving you a boost…”

WHAT IT SAID:         “With travel now in full swing…”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Now that we’re making money again hand over fist, we no longer need to kiss your sorry ass.

WHAT IT SAID:         “Our standard qualification requirements are returning.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    F*ck you and the horse you rode in on.

WHAT IT SAID:         “But we are giving you a boost…”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Drop your drawers, bend over, and take a deep breath.

WHAT IT SAID:         “We’ll automatically deposit PQP into your MileagePlus account.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Your PQP is so tiny and meaningless that you’ll need a microscope to see it.

WHAT IT SAID:         “An exciting change we are making in 2023 is that when you use MileagePlus miles for award flights operated by United you will now earn Premier qualifying credits.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Hey, dumbass, we’re happy to give you 1500 miles credit for award travel flights costing you 170,000 MileagePlus miles that formerly cost 45,000 miles.

WHAT IT SAID:         “All redeposit fees associated with canceling award travel have been removed.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Why not, schmuck?  We’ve restricted award travel capacity and raised the cost so much that you aren’t likely to find award travel flights anyway.

WHAT IT SAID:         “We look forward to flying with you soon.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    As long as you pay through the nose and aren’t on a free ticket

WHAT IT SAID:         “MileagePlus.  The world’s most rewarding loyalty program.”

WHAT IT MEANS:    Oh yeah! Now that it’s been drastically devalued, the program is highly rewarding to our executives and shareholders!  WOO-HOO! … Wait, did you think we meant you?

24 hours from Ljubljana to Raleigh

November 8, 2022

After a delightful two weeks in Slovenia and Croatia, my wife Ruth and I steeled ourselves for the flights back home to RDU on Air France and Delta.  We had reason to be apprehensive.  Delta had nearly ruined our outbound trip, though Air France had done an admirable job getting us across the pond once we made it to JFK.  Despite being en route for 24 hours getting home, it was not so bad.  Of course, it should not take a full day, but with long layovers in Paris (over 4 hours) and Boston (5-6 hours), it was almost exactly 24 hours from the time we arrived at Ljubljana Airport to arrival at RDU. Following are my real-time, all-day notes:

Air France LJU/CDG

I awoke before 3:00 AM and thereafter dozed until my alarm at 3:20 AM. The outside temp was then 46° F. in central Ljubljana. Fall seems to have arrived suddenly. We were sad to be leaving after such a great trip to Slovenia and Croatia.

Ruth and I had arranged a 4:20 AM taxi to the LJU Airport (for €35). The driver came early at 4:05 AM and dropped us at the terminal at 4:35 AM. That’s when I realized we would be getting to RDU 24 hours later assuming all three flights are on time.

As with our flights to Slovenia, we’re on Air France LJU/CDG, then AF to Boston rather than to JFK, and finally Delta Boston to RDU.

Air France personnel opened at 4:45 AM at Ljubljana airport and efficiently issued boarding passes for all three flights. I was pleased to discover my original seat assignments were intact and relieved that AF printed TSA Pre on every boarding pass.

Ruth and I were the first through airport security (gels and liquids in a plastic bag) and found the Priority Pass lounge.  There’s only one business lounge at LJU that serves every airline plus Priority Pass. It’s modest but perfectly adequate and comfortable. Breakfast items were laid out as soon as it opened at 5:00 AM.

AF1187 Ljubljana to Paris was another E190. About two-thirds full. Boarded efficiently starting at 6:15 AM (6:45 scheduled departure). The flight was buttoned up and ready to go by 6:30 but didn’t push back until 6:50. Off the ground before 7:00.

We watched the gorgeous Julian Alps fade into the distance after takeoff. I wasn’t sure if the steep climb angle was standard or to quickly get above the tall peaks.

Departing made me reflect on some things I’ll miss about Slovenia and Croatia: the cheerful, upbeat, and friendly people everywhere; the good and wholesome food; the excellent local wines and beer; the unhurried pace of locals (not as obsessively frenetic as Americans); every city’s strong focus on pedestrians and bicycles; more roundabouts by far than stoplights; good public transit all over the place; driver preference for manual transmissions; the nearly universal use of turn signals; frequent, reliable and comfortable intercity bus service and rail service; low speed limits which were well-enforced.

And things I won’t miss: widespread public smoking in both countries (sometimes difficult to avoid, thanks in part to ashtrays being provided at every cafe, bar, and restaurant table); Croatia Railways’ chronically poor operation (I overheard an American complain it’s the “Amtrak of Europe”); pay toilets.

Landed in Paris at 8:40. Arrived at our gate at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) remote Terminal 2G at 8:50. After waiting in a long queue, we took the bus from 2G to 2E, stepping off around 9:25.

Paris CDG Airport

Our flight to Boston leaves in 3.5 hours at 1:10 PM from 2E, gate K43. Priority Pass has only a single club in the entire gigantic complex of Paris CDG, and it’s somewhere in the L concourse, the opposite direction from K. But we figured that was enough time to visit the lounge and make the long trek back by shuttle train from L to K.

It was a long distance just to get to L. Along the way, we went through a facial recognition semi-automated passport control screen. Finally arriving at L, the only sign for the Yotel Air Lounge (the Priority Pass partner) seemed to lead outside security. A brusque Airport employee yelled that wouldn’t happen, shrugged, and turned away. I figured we had time even if we had to go back through security, so took the risk.

Turned out we were still airside, just in another dimension of L. We followed signs for the Yotel Air lounge down a long corridor. Once again we encountered a brusque staffer, this one manning the entrance. He processed our cards and bid us enter with the admonition that only snacks and few beverages were available, no real food.

Just past the door, I grasped that the Yotel Air lounge was one small space, already crowded, uninviting, messy, and ugly. When I saw the lounge was charging even for bottled water (an outrageous  €4), we left. In many years of visiting Priority Pass clubs, this was the worst I’ve ever seen.

It took another 40 minutes to ride the shuttle train from L to K and then to go through security again with our bags. Ruth commented that she already missed the gentle, kind, and helpful Slovenes and Croatians as Parisian security staff barked at us all the way through. It was a rude shock to be back among unhappy people.

We found a place near our gate to buy some food that passed for breakfast, and we are now walking the long concourse to get some exercise before the flight to Boston.

Photos above include one of the Julian Alps as we took off this morning from Ljubljana and one of Paris from our plane on approach. Though tiny from the sky, the iconic Eiffel Tower stands out.

Air France CDG/BOS

The scheduled departure was 1:10 PM with boarding at 12:35, but the airplane didn’t show up at the gate until 12:45. AF claimed it was a jet bridge problem that had to be fixed, but other gate staff told me the plane was just late coming from the hangar.  After boarding, the captain attributed the delay to the tardy arrival of the aircraft.  As always with airlines, truth and facts are elusive. If they are going to lie, they should at least get the story straight.

Of course, then the cockpit and cabin crews had to board and put all their stuff away.

Too, the cleaning crew had to spiff up the interior. I guess they couldn’t be bothered to do that while the plane sat at the hangar.

The catering folks had to come around as well. Not to mention security personnel inspections of the aircraft interior, the important refueling process, and maintenance sign-off that everything is operable. And I almost forgot loading of checked bags and cargo.

All that necessary busy work delayed boarding until after 1:00 PM. The airplane finally pushed back at 2:03, just shy of an hour late.

Once we were finally allowed to board, things improved. Our Air France A350 Premium Economy cabin is configured 2-3-2 in 3 rows totaling 21 seats. Very comfortable width and pitch. The boarding went smoothly.

I think Air France does a great job in Premium Economy. After we were settled, the purser came around to introduce himself to each PE customer and insisted we call a crewmember if we needed anything.

The captain apologized for the late departure and pledged to make up the lost hour. As I write this, it appears we’ll be landing pretty close to schedule despite the outbound snafus.

The meal service matched my notion of what the Premium Economy standard ought to be. Which is to say, higher quality than the coach lunch, but below the premium dining experience in business class.

Ruth and I chose an entree of French roast duck with mashed potatoes, accompanied by a tasty cold pasta salad, delicious chewy French bread, a wedge of decent brie, and a fruity dessert. Real Champagne in copious quantities, too.

It was all pretty good. Certainly not akin to the spectacular meals in Croatia and Slovenia, but I expect very little from airline fare, and this was sure better than average. 

A mid-flight snack service and a small box lunch one hour prior to arrival were both decent as well.

Altogether, we were more than satisfied with the 6.5-hour flight once it finally got underway. All four flights this trip on Air France have been pleasant experiences, even accounting for the delay out of Paris.

Premium Economy is so much better than coach, yet so much cheaper than outrageously expensive business class. Photos are of this A350 Premium Economy cabin.

The captain kept his promise, and we landed at Boston Logan International Airport close to the advertised arrival time.  Thanks to having only carry-on bags and being TSA Global Entry, we zipped through the throngs at Immigration and made the interminable trek across BOS Logan to Delta’s distant domestic terminal.  We missed an earlier flight to RDU by five minutes.

Delta BOS/RDU

Now we wait in the Delta SkyClub for hours for the flight to Raleigh. The long connection is due to Delta reshuffling its schedule with fewer flights, supposedly in response to crew shortages. We’ll be dog-tired by the time we reach RDU late tonight.

Happily, though, the BOS SkyClub has showers.  I refreshed and changed into clean clothes, feeling less like a hobo afterward.  The club had decent food selections, too, and good wifi.  We nibbled and snoozed and reflected on our fabulous fortnight abroad in the Balkans.

On-time boarding of the nighttime Delta flight to RDU was bungled by an incompetent gate agent.  Weary, we finally dropped into our Comfort+ seats.  Just before the door closed, I heard the lead flight attendant barking at the inept gate agent that he had double-assigned our seats.  They both approached us and asked to see our boarding passes.  The FA then scowled at the gate agent and said he was supposed to have put Ruth and me into first class. 

Naturally, we obliged and moved up front, even finding room for our luggage in the overhead compartment.  As I write this, we are airborne, and I’m enjoying a nightcap G&T (our son is picking us up at RDU) and breathing a sigh of relief that we will soon be home.  The captain says we’ll land on time despite the cockup boarding.  Having been upgraded and anesthetized, I’m relaxed.  Ruth is already dozing.

The flights in Premium Economy (and sitting in just plain coach beyond Paris) on Air France were excellent.  Makes me wish I could always book AF.  Despite canceling our RDU/JFK first flight to connect to AF, Delta made good and got us to New York on American Airlines at no expense to us.  All in all, considering today’s uncertain air travel, luck was with us, and we had good experiences.  

Lovely Ljubljana

October 31, 2022

Saving the capital city Ljubljana (Slovenia) for the end of two weeks exploring Slovenia and Croatia in September, my wife Ruth and I boarded a delayed train in Zagreb. Kudos to Slovenia Railways for making up time, as reported in an earlier post. We arrived in Ljubljana before 4:00 PM, leaving ample daylight for walking 25 minutes from the Ljubljana central station to the pedestrian-only city center. We could have grabbed a taxi, of course, but we were traveling light and wanted to see the city on foot.

Once again, Ruth’s careful map research paid off. She led us directly to our spacious and comfortable apartment in the heart of the city’s thriving street scene on the river. The first photo is a wide-angle look at part of the apartment (about $115/night). We were there for two nights. My wife gets full credit for finding and booking that as well. Always an expert travel planner, she outdid herself on this trip.

My first impressions were of modern sophistication. Ljubljana hums with energy, but a totally different vibe from ancient Split and old Dubrovnik in Croatia. For starters, the age spectrum of merrymakers is much broader. Lots of families with babies and young kids together with the young-twenties crowd. All having fun and celebrating their lives in harmony. It’s a good scene.

The architecture is distinctively Euro, but contemporary. Ljubljana’s cool doesn’t come from a Roman emperor’s palace like Split or the literal fairytale King’s Landing feel of Dubrovnik. It’s hip and up-to-date, yet proudly European. Ljubljana is, to me, reminiscent of Amsterdam and Paris with its multitudes of bikers, waterside cafes, bars and restaurants, and myriad suave shops. I say again: the city is sophisticated.

The following day Ruth signed us up for the free walking tour of the old town parts of Ljubljana.  We joined the 11:00 AM group.  I admit payment was voluntary for the walking tour, but our guide for over two hours was authoritative and outstanding. We were happy to each give the equivalent of ten dollars, a bargain for the comprehensive information imparted.

Ruth and I had already been out touring on foot on our own since 8:00 AM. We tried to see things the free tour wouldn’t cover. The castle on the steep hill above the town center, for instance, is most easily reached by a funicular railway. Photo of the city and distant Julian Alps was taken at the castle.

One photo is of Ljubljana’s famous Dragon Bridge, and one is a gaggle of tethered toddlers out for a morning stroll from their daycare facility.

Other pictures give an idea of the beautiful architecture all over Ljubljana. The city is full of art nouveau buildings. Even more interesting are the many, many famous works of architect Jože Plečnik (1892-1957), known as the Gaudi of Ljubljana. That’s his library in the penultimate photo with the jutting stones.

The last picture shows the alley leading to our fabulous apartment (again thanks to Ruth).  The artwork down the center is by a local artist. Central Ljubljana is replete with his works.

An earlier post raved about our exceptional dining experiences in Ljubljana on the first and second evenings in town. With deeply-etched happy memories of Slovenia and Croatia, we left the following morning just past 4:00 AM for the airport to return home. I’ll describe the long trek home via Air France and Delta in my next post.

Fascinating Split and Dubrovnik

October 27, 2022

First-time visits to Split and Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast were thought to be highlights for my wife and me during a trip to Slovenia and Croatia in September.  The cities exceeded expectations.  My real-time notes tell the tale:

Night of arrival at Split

It’s a bit past 10:00 PM here, just three hours after arriving at the main bus station, and yet Split’s raw energy makes us feel we’ve been here for days. This place rocks!

Split got on the map when Roman Emporer Diocletian built his retirement palace here in the 4th century A.D.  Read all about it here.

The palace and the adjacent Roman garrison town still form the basis for Split’s Old Town. It was a 10-minute walk from the bus to the palace. Our apartment tonight is just off the palace peristyle, the central square of Diocletian’s massive retirement home.

We dined tonight at a fancy restaurant that’s inside the ancient palace walls. You can see the old Roman stone construction in the picture. 

Close-ups of the superb Hvar Island Croatian “black” (red) wine, a 2016 vintage, can’t begin to impart its unique delicious flavors. It was our one big splurge on wine, and well worth the price.

Crowds were gathered in the peristyle area to watch live music and the spectacle of Roman soldier enactors. I wonder what Diocletian would think of the casual modern interlopers to what was his sanctum.

Shops and restaurants line the interior beyond the entrance to the palace, making the scene thrive. More than 2,000 people still live within the Roman palace and garrison walls.

Just outside the palace and garrison is the Riva promenade on the Adriatic waterfront. The promenade is lined with restaurants, all chock-full of patrons. It was remarkable to see such lively prosperity in motion. Where does all this money come from?

Tomorrow we board a huge catamaran to ply the Dalmation Coast and islands from Split to Dubrovnik. We’ve had a snootful of good wine tonight, making us glad checkout time isn’t until 11am.

Next morning in Split

When we got off the Flixbus in Split last night, it was dark, we were exhausted, and we had to find our apartment somewhere in Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace some distance away. Naturally, the 4th-century structure is a rabbit warren of alleyways. We didn’t even initially know which way to walk from the bus.

Thank goodness for Google Walk navigation. I simply typed in the name of our accommodation in Split (a small locally-owned establishment consisting of 3 small apartments that my wife Ruth brilliantly booked), and Google immediately popped up clear directions for the turn-by-turn 9-minute walk.

We obeyed Google, and to my astonishment, it took us into the palace’s maze of underground cellar passages and open-to-the-sky corridors and landed us precisely at our out-of-the-way apartment at the end of one narrow palace alley. Turned out our 3rd-floor apartment was immediately adjacent to the ancient Roman temple of Jupiter (see photo taken this morning from our window).

Photos from last night of the palace peristyle and other areas give a sense of how confusing it was to find our way in the dark. Yet Google Walk was dead-on correct even in a Roman Emperor’s palace in Croatia.

This morning Ruth and I did our own self-guided tour in and all around the palace and old Roman garrison using maps and documentation provided by the Split TI (Tourist Information) office. Doing so made us think and study the maps hard without being part of a guided tour (too many people, too slow, and costly). We moved at our own pace. Photos depict Diocletian’s Roman palace.

As the morning wore on, the sun beat down mercilessly, and tourist throngs clogged every path. Split’s Old Town is indeed a treasure, but if we visited again, it would be in April or October in hopes of avoiding the Disneyesque crowds. It was extremely off-putting not to be able to walk without bumping into one person after another. Not much fun. We were often stopped by a snarl of humanity ahead in the narrow palace passages thoughtlessly snapping photos.

Squinting at the hordes reminded me of the North Carolina State Fair on a busy Saturday. Well, except for the absence of morbidly obese North Carolinians snacking on fried dough-and-candy-bar sandwiches.

We left our bags after the 11:00 AM checkout hour with the apartment staff and mosied over to the Jadrolinija catamaran ferry terminal to see where to board our 3:30 PM boat to Dubrovnik. It’s a six-hour trip because the fast ferry stops at three or four offshore islands before Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik

Our catamaran from Split to Dubrovnik arrived at 9:15 PM last night.  We bought city bus tickets from the port to the Old City of Dubrovnik, some miles distant, and we arrived at the Pile Gate (pronounced, we think, PEE’ LAY), around 10:00 PM.

WHAM! Sensory overload the moment we stepped off the bus. It was Split’s frenetic mobs all over again. Disney could learn a thing or two from Dubrovnik about jamming way too many people into tight spaces.

We donned our KN95 masks, as we do in crowded places, and made our way into the pedestrian-only Old City. The main drag, called Stradum, was as congested and full of revelers as Bourbon Street in New Orleans on Shrove Tuesday just before midnight when Mardi Gras ends. It was difficult to make our way through, especially laden with heavy luggage.

I thought at first that Google Walk navigation had failed me, then realized it was a user error (mine). I hadn’t specified we were on foot. No matter. Ruth saved us by dead reckoning routing through the shrieking throngs. Every tiny passage was full of twenty-somethings yucking it up, chowing down, and imbibing with glee. The noise level was deafening.

After a few dead-end narrow alleys, which Dubrovnik is famous for, we arrived at a long set of stairs that reminded me of Rome’s Spanish Steps, except uneven and badly in need of repair. Bleakly pondering how I’d have to lug my heavy roller bag up the long and dangerous-looking flights of crooked and broken steps, I thought of Frau Bluecker’s admonishment to Young Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ movie: “Be careful! The staircase CAN be treacherous!”

Treacherous indeed. After a long and tortured climb, I made it to the top. Four times as I stopped for breathers, kind young people took pity on me and offered to help. I sure felt pathetic, but I merely thanked them and kept pushing slowly up on my own.

Ruth waited at the top with good news. She had somehow found the hidden entrance to our apartment in the pitch dark and extracted a key from the adjacent lockbox.

Arrived at last! I was dripping with sweat. My first taste of Dubrovnik was gaggles of happy-go-lucky rabble-rousers, plus steps, steps, steps, steps, and more steps.

Our gorgeous garden apartment cost was €120 per night.  Credit to Ruth for booking two nights in this extraordinarily comfortable, quiet, and lovely space.

As we realized this morning, last night’s climbing adventure was an authentic beginning to navigating the city. Everything is on a steep elevation here, and our path always seems to go up. If we ever come back, I’ll make do with only a featherweight backpack. No more anvil-weight roller bags.

In daylight, it’s easy to believe you’ve been transported to King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. A good deal of the HBO series was filmed here, and it sure looks like it. Everywhere I turned, it was Deja vu from the show: the wall, the city scenes, the steps where Cersei made her naked walk of shame, the castle-like structures, Blackwater Bay.

With all the wretched steps in this town, no wonder Queen Cersei stumbled and fell on her long walk from the sept to the castle. Although it’s not so bad without the excremental burden of my roller bag.

Dubrovnik’s maze of narrow streets reminds us both of Venice, though lacking much of that city’s charm. Charming, just not THAT charming.

Cruise ship people filled the streets this morning in clusters of tours divided by language. Many were aged and enfeebled. God bless them, they’re where we’re all headed, me sooner than most.

Every day is a whirlwind of new experiences. I’m amazed at how much Ruth’s fabulous trip planning packed in for us. In order to optimize the opportunity of being here, we typically move at lightning speed.

We don’t try to see every museum and cathedral. After the Duomo in Florence, Rome’s St. Peter’s, and a few others, most churches pale by comparison to me.

Nor do we try to visit every museum. We’re more interested in sights and culture. Such as walking tours of highlights, savoring local cuisine, and interacting with locals.

This morning we were at one of the city gates by 8:00 AM when the spectacular Dubrovnik walls opened for walking tours. At 250 Kuna each (about $33), it wasn’t cheap, but it’s the primo sight and worth it. 

We successfully beat the crowds that come after 9:00 AM. And beat most of the worst heat of the day.

The wall is just 1940 meters around (about 1.2 miles), but with its many ups and downs (lots and lots more steps), it seemed a lot longer. We made the complete loop in just over an hour.  Game of Thrones fans like me will immediately see the resemblances to King’s Landing.

We stopped for lunch at D’Vino wine bar and restaurant.  Plavac Mali is the quintessential Croatian red varietal.  Wines made from the Plavac Mali grape are rich, distinctive, and deep.  It is unique to this part of the world.

We enjoyed a flight of Plavec Mali wines, along with some equally good Croatian white wines, at D’Vino. It was our favorite experience in Dubrovnik along with walking the wall. A haven of heaven from the madding crowds. I’d be a loyal patron if I lived in the city.

Apparently, Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, who played Tyrion Lannister (a lead character), agreed. Dining here during the series’ filming, he scrawled his character’s famous lines on the mirror: “That’s what I do. I drink, and I know things.”

After drinking and eating at D’Vino, Ruth and I know a thing or two as well. Such as Croatian wines are world-class, and it’s a shame the best ones are not exported to America. Also, the hummus, cheeses, olives, and cured meats we consumed for lunch were to die for!

We got 3 kg of laundry washed, dried, and folded in two hours this morning for 150 Kuna ($20). Big relief.  We had to pay the laundry lady cash in Croatian Kuna, as many Croatian businesses stubbornly insist. I wonder why they care whether it’s Kuna or Euros. The Kuna is a dead currency come January 1, 2023, when Croatia converts to Euros.

Later, we enjoyed excellent Croatian lager in our private garden absent the chaos of the tourist mobs. Then ventured out again to watch locals and tourists relishing the highlife at Buza One, a bar on the seaside rocks, accessed through a narrow hole in the wall. Note the kayakers and swimmers in the warm Adriatic in the photo.

Not a cheap place to pop over for a drink. A Moscow Mule is $22. But a gorgeous Vista! We looked and left.

We spent a short time in both Split and Dubrovnik.  It was enough for us to savor the character of each place.  The experiences were rich and unique, but staying longer might have become tedious.  We left fulfilled and ready to move on.

World-class Croatian national park

October 18, 2022

Continuing the exposition of our amazing trip to Slovenia and Croatia in early September, my wife and I drove from Piran to the spectacular Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia.  It’s only 242 km (150 miles) from Piran (Slovenia) to Plitvice (Croatia). The guidebooks say that’s a 3.5 to 4 hours drive going direct. However, time was on our side, and my wife Ruth suggested we make a stop in Opatija on the south coast of the Croatian peninsula of Istria.

I’d never heard of Opatija, yet during the golden era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, this was the favorite winter hangout for the ruling Austrian Habsburg royals. Soon every real and would-be member of the imperial upper crust made winter homes in Opatija, too, giving it the rep of being the Austrian Riviera.

Today it is dripping again with wealth and beauty. The photos give some hint of today’s Opatija money. We enjoyed walking the seaside promenade and taking in views of the seemingly endless prosperity evident in both shoreline directions as far as the eye can see.

Then on to Plitvice. We left Piran around 900a and arrived at our small family-run hotel near 500p. Even with the Opatija stop en route, it was a slow drive.

That’s because all Slovenian and Croatian two-lane roads are slow. Speed limits between the many small villages are, in theory, 60-70 km (37-43 mph). With the inevitable traffic and slow drivers, though, it’s difficult to make more than 50 km an hour. Through towns is even slower.

This drove me crazy at first, but now I’ve just accepted it. After all, as Ruth reminded me, we were not in a hurry. And the challenge of driving a 6-speed stick shift on twisting roads and through quaint little European burgs was great fun. 

Just the same, the 15-minute backup at the Slovenia-Croatia border was aggravating. Ruth drove those miles, thank goodness, while I buried my head in Rick Steves’ excellent Slovenia-Croatia travel guide.

I was reading up on Croatia to understand that new (for me) country and how it differs from Slovenia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia. Soon I was perusing more on Marshal Tito, the autocratic communist dictator who kept Yugoslavia together from the end of WWII until his death in 1980. The passage offered an old joke of that era to understand the current country differences:

“Yugoslavia had eight distinct peoples in six republics, with five languages, three religions (Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and Muslim), and two alphabets (Roman and Cyrillic), but only one Yugoslav–Tito.”

Croatia is a newish EU member, but still uses its own currency, the Kuna, until the end of 2022. We had about $100 in Kuna that I exchanged through Wells Fargo before leaving Raleigh at 7.3 to the dollar. The official rate is 7.5.

A hundred bucks in local currency isn’t much, especially since we read that many places in Croatia don’t take credit cards. So, after crossing the border, we stopped at several roadside foreign exchange booths to get more Kuna but turned down stupid rates of 5.7 to 6.5 per dollar.  Yet a waterside snack bar in Opatija gave us 7.5 to the Euro (the Euro and dollar are near parity at the moment.)

The route from Opatija to Plitvice took us along a sinuous coastline reminiscent of the beauty of California’s Big Sur. The islands in the Adriatic, the steep elevation of the coastal hills, the sparkling sea, and the winding roads were stunning. Before every sharp curve was a Croatian sign warning the road ahead was “Serpentina,” which I had no trouble translating.

As we drove inland toward the Plitvice National Park, I remembered the Steves guidebook mentioning that the first casualty of the Croat-Bosnian War of 1992-94 began at the park. While the rest of Croatia bounced back, the surrounding region has never recovered from the conflict.

Ruth’s navigation took us along many tiny country roads in that area, and it certainly does appear bleak and unpopulated. The photos give some impressions of the passing scene.

One is of the many traditional large and brightly painted beehives common to Slovenia and Croatia. This one seemed far away from anything.

Two photos bear witness to the many abandoned farmhouses and buildings we passed. Note the bullet holes in the exterior walls, presumably souvenirs of the war.

The sow was foraging loose on the road, apparently replenishing her milk supply for waiting piglets. The hog, a few goats, some cows, and a pony were the only evidence we saw of active farm life in the region.

Dinner that night was not fancy, but mostly delicious: a scrumptious prosciutto pizza with arugula, a bottle of tasty Croatian lager, and a glass of good Croatian white wine. Plus a piece of forgettable chocolate cake for dessert. The bill came to $20 total, a bargain.

After a homemade breakfast at the little hotel the following morning, we spent most of the day hiking through the famous Plitvice Lakes National Park. Our landlady, the hotel owner, graciously offered to do our laundry while we were away—for a charge, of course.

I didn’t know I still had it in me to walk 12 miles in less than five hours, let alone that I could endure about half of it steeply uphill and much of the rest steeply downgrade. But then Ruth reminded me that we’d done 9 miles at the gorge near Lake Bled that I complained about a few days ago.

The up and down on that earlier one nearly did me in, so I was surprised to be less knackered after 12 miles through the gorgeous Plitvice Lakes National Park. The photos don’t do the place justice.

Aside from bathing in the sheer natural beauty of the park and its myriad waterfalls, I was impressed by the miles and miles of sturdy wooden boardwalks and footbridges that connect the network of trails. I’m a sucker for outdoor experiences that national parks provide so well around the world.

Other impressions:

Dogs, dogs, and more dogs. Lots of people bring their well-behaved pooches along for the brisk hikes, and that’s okay in Croatia.

Why does everyone walk faster than I do and pass me on the trails? Oh, wait. I’m 74. Never mind.

Young people, young people, young people. Sure, some geezers like me, but mostly a very young set, including families with kids, and even babies.

Like everywhere else we visited in Slovenia and Croatia, Europeans were visiting from every corner of the continent (even Ukraine). Most surprising to Ruth and me was seeing many Americans. This park is reputed to be off the beaten track for Yanks, but I guess that’s wrong now.

Temps of 50s F. early morning (we began at 800am) to 70s by noon were perfect for long, strenuous hikes.

Park admission prices were as steep as some of the trails at $40 each. Parking was more reasonable at $8.50 for six hours. All worth it, in my estimation.

After resting our tired bodies at the hotel for an hour, we visited a small town a half hour away where we ended up at a truck stop for dinner.  The meal, on the outskirts of tiny Slunj, was definitely déclassé.  A parade of giant trucks ply the adjacent main highway between Split and Zagreb, and the place of our evening repast was set up to catch the big-rig trade as well as tourist buses from nearby Plitvice Lakes National Park.

It was a poor second choice to one Ruth had carefully researched not far away, but a lack of parking forced us to seek a quick alternative dining establishment. Hence the truck stop.

My Wienerschnitzel was overcooked and strangely paired with oily, under-fried potatoes. Ruth’s trout was better, but would never, ever attract a Michelin star. Yet we were famished. Still, I left more than I consumed.

Ruth staged a highly unattractive photo of me agape with the veal cutlet, which I deleted.

The final picture is one of the many wooden plank bridges at Plitvice. The absence of people was momentary.

We highly recommend Plitvice Lakes National Park despite the crowds. Come early at 700am and in September to sidestep the hordes.

The following day we drove to Ptuj in far northeast Slovenia. Ptuj is in the premier Slovene wine country and with a heavy Hungarian cuisine influence as the region lies proximate to that country, about which I’ll report next week.

Slovenian mountains to the sea

October 10, 2022

Continuing the exposition of our amazing trip to Slovenia and Croatia in early September, my wife and I drove from Lake Bled in the mountains to the old town of Piran on the Adriatic coast.

Leaving the Penzion Mayer in Bled after another great breakfast and some farewell laughs with Madame Mayer (“Next time, bring MEN!” she admonished us. “Not women, but SINGLE MEN!”), my wife Ruth routed us to and through the Julian Alps that line the border between Slovenia and Austria and, farther on, between Slovenia and Italy. From there we drove over the beautiful Vrsic Pass on a narrow road with 50 switchbacks (24 up, 26 down). 

Lots of timid drivers, bicycles, motorcycles, motor homes, and sheep made the passage up and over hair-raising at times, but a great deal of fun when driving a six-speed manual transmission. You can get a feel for the Julian Alps and Vrsic Pass from the photos.

The three craggy peaks in one picture constitute Triglav, the tallest mountain in Slovenia at over 9000′.

At one point we were just 4 miles from the Italian border.

The day’s low temp was 46° F. when cresting the pass, and the highest was later 77° F. when we reached Piran on the Adriatic.

For reasons unknown, I didn’t get much sleep the previous night, so I was in a fog. Thoroughly alert, however, through the mountain pass and beyond. Later, though, traffic congestion enervated me to the point of exhaustion.

We had intended to travel to Ljubljana to have a late lunch at the city’s Friday-only Open Market, but our plans changed. Horrendous traffic congestion and many stops for road construction on narrow two-line roads exiting the valley beyond Vrsic Pass, and later a 23+ minute backup on the expressway to Ljubljana, caused us to lose so much time that we went straight to Piran instead.

The idyllic Julian Alps and Vrsic Pass were magic. The roads after that not so much. Driving, so enjoyable through the mountains, became chronically stressful, and we were both relieved to get to Piran on the Adriatic coast early at just after 300p.

Once again, Ruth expertly navigated, this time into the ancient town of Piran, where cars are mostly prohibited. We located the reception office that handled the booking.com apartment Ruth reserved, left our car temporarily on the street while we walked our luggage 500 meters to the apartment, then drove the rental car to a garage outside the little town, and finally got a shuttle bus back into old Piran. Whew!

Piran retains its old character by banning cars except for quick drop-offs and pickups. It’s the only town along the meager 29 miles of Slovenian coastline that hasn’t been overrun by ugly seaside resorts of concrete and steel. It is indeed charming.

Ruth cleverly booked us a second-story apartment overlooking the water, its only disadvantage being the inevitable noise from the adjacent trattorias and bars. The location was worth the inconvenience, however.

We were there for two nights at €310 total, plus a modest daily tourist tax and €15 per day for parking outside town in a massive garage.

The above photo looks up at our apartment, which is the top window with shutters in the reddish center of the building just above the name “Galeb.” The next picture is the view through our shutters looking at Piran’s odd concrete beach where sunbathers and swimmers flock and frolic in the Adriatic. There is no sandy beach. Just lots of rocks, boulders, and a rocky bottom in the shallow sea there.

Piran is reminiscent of Venice, but tiny (3,773 population) and without the rich history. Photos show the narrow alleys that characterize the little place. All attuned to pedestrians, as in ancient days. With few exceptions, cars are banned, as in Venice.

Another picture is of the “cement beach” where folks congregate. Seems not very beachy to us, but popular to the point of crowding.

With respect to Europe’s relatively loose standards of modesty compared to uptight America, the first view I had as we approached the concrete beach area was a large naked male butt. I beheld a middle-aged man changing in public. (There’s no photo of that.)

Okay, fine with me. I’m not a prude. But frankly, I would have preferred to witness one of the topless ladies lounging on French Riviera beaches.

We dined that night at the Restaurant Neptun.  We were extremely lucky to get in at 600p, as Neptun is the premier place to feast in Piran. The owner and his son took a liking to us and allowed us a table while turning down at least 50 people who came before and after us (the head-shaking of “no tables” was repeated over and over through our 90-minute dinner).

Rick Steves raves that Restaurant Neptun is his favorite in Piran. So I was surprised that I found the baked fish and calamari with vegetables for two to be boring and unworthy of praise. Which is I didn’t report lavish praise on the Neptun in my post on the largely superb restaurants of Slovenia and Croatia.

Ruth’s judgment of the meal was exactly opposite mine. She loved it. One man’s meat, and all that.

I did enjoy the bread and olive oil with white anchovies served complimentary up front, and also the Slovenian champagne the owner’s son recommended (a bargain at €20 for the bottle). Still hungry after the entree dishes were whisked away, I got a panna cotta. But even Ruth admitted it was lousy.

I finished the panna cotta just the same. No point in going to bed with my stomach growling.

Dinner came to €72.50, including the champagne, not bad for the most expensive place in town. I tipped the owner’s son another €15 in tribute to Ruth’s enjoyment of the food and his generosity in seating us with no reservations on a Friday evening.

The pix above is of the cement beach at dusk, demonstrating that a fading sunset and encroaching darkness can hide a lot of stark ugliness.

Slovenia is a compact country about the size (not the shape) of New Jersey. It’s just 60-65 miles on an Interstate-type highway from the capital, Ljubljana, to the Adriatic coast where old Piran is located. City folks flock there on weekends and holidays the way North Carolinians shoot off to the beach.

About halfway between Ljubljana and Piran is the most popular tourist attraction in Slovenia, the Postojna Caverns. That’s less than an hour’s drive from Piran, so we visited the huge cave on our second day there.

Postojna Caverns go on for miles, so large that a narrow gauge railway is used to transport millions of tourists each year into and through the network of underground rooms. Visitors are dropped off deep in the center, where they proceed on a 45-minute guided walk through some of the most impressive limestone deposits. My single photo doesn’t do it justice.

Returning to Piran mid-afternoon, I took the selfie by the harbor and the next photo of Ruth standing by the harbor, with the main square and church spire in the background. 

To relax, we stopped at one of the many seaside bars adjacent to the ugly cement beach and enjoyed two examples of Union beer, reputedly the best Slovenian brew. The Radler was half beer and half grapefruit juice, very refreshing. The lager was clean and perfect.

After dinner, we wandered around discovering alleyway nooks and crannies. Ruth is the expert in finding places of interest, and by sundown, she had led us to the church at the very top of Piran. The photos looking down on the little village include these near sunset.

The following morning we drove inland for three and half hours to Plitvice National Park in Croatia, a place of astounding natural beauty.  Describing Plitvice with the respect it deserves will be its own post (next week).

Planes, trains & automobiles (buses & ferries, too) in Slovenia & Croatia

October 4, 2022

For last month’s two-week trip to Slovenia and Croatia—my first time visiting that part of the world—my wife, Ruth, and I planned our mobility needs around time, distance, and the availability of trains.  In Western Europe, we typically rely entirely on railroads to get us between places. Research, however, indicated a dearth of rail connections in Slovenia and Croatia, requiring a car. And some distances made for all-day train rides when an airplane covered the ground in an hour or two.  Thus, we settled on renting a car for the first week to reach places off the rail networks in both countries, and then mostly trains the second week, with one plane ride to save time. Circumstances along the way led us to travel via long-distance bus as well.  Oh, and a fast ferry along the Dalmation coast, too.

Rental car rambles

A couple of posts back I mentioned, without elaboration, renting an Avis car at the Ljubljana Airport (LJU).  Honestly, before getting there, I was anxious about unknown cost and hassle factors, like taxes, tolls (all the expressways in both Slovenia and Croatia are tolled by license plate readers), extra driver fees, and fees for driving back and forth over the international border between the two countries. 

My worry was for nothing.  Avis made it super-easy by bundling all those charges into the bill. The week’s rental all-in total with unlimited kilometers was $641.43, or less than $100/day.  We put 1246 km (774 miles), about 110 miles per day, on the spirited Spanish SUV with a great-fun-to-drive manual transmission, and I paid extra only for gasoline.

We needed the car to travel on a circuit from LJU Airport (Slovenia) to Lake Bled, to and through the Julian Alps, to Piran (on the Adriatic coast), to the Postojna Caverns, then across the Istrian peninsula to Opatija, Croatia (the Austrian Riviera), to Lake Plitvice National Park, Croatia, to Ptuj, Slovenia, and finally back to the LJU Airport.  Those wonderful places are not connected to each other by train, and so we drove ourselves. It was a spectacular week of novel travel experiences, details of which I’ll write about in future posts.

Bus LJU Airport to Ljubljana

From the LJU Airport, we caught a city bus into Ljubljana to catch a train to Zagreb, Croatia. There are several options to get from remote LJU Airport into the city of Ljubljana ranging up to about €20 each. The cheapest was the city bus at €4.10 per person.

To tell the truth, we opted for the bus mainly because there was one conveniently leaving at 1100a. The photos taken from the airport bus stop are of the stunning Julian Alps in the distance and of the modest LJU Airport terminal. Ljubljana’s airport is the only commercial aerodrome in Slovenia, but then Ruth reminded me that nothing in the country is more than about 2.5 hours distance away.

The bus ride took almost exactly an hour and deposited us at the main bus terminal, which is conveniently adjacent to the central train station. I was interested to note that all Ljubljana city buses are operated by arriva, a DB (Deutsche Bahn, German Federal Railways) subsidiary.

Along the way, I noticed Slovenian traffic signals cycle from red to green with a handy red+yellow phase that allows drivers to get ready to go. I’ve seen that in a number of other countries and liked it.

Train Ljubljana to Zagreb

Waiting at the train station for three hours was actually pleasant despite the high eighties temp, thanks to a steady breeze and many places to sit in the shade of the train sheds.

However, the train to Zagreb, operated by ÖBB (Austrian Federal Railway), was not at all pleasant despite our 1st class tickets. The photo above shows it arriving on Track 10 at Ljubljana Station.

Our train, IC 211, didn’t merit the IC designation (European Inter City). Only two of seven cars had functioning A/C. It was 86° F. outside, and the cars with broken A/C were roasting inside.

We were stifling in our first class seats in one of the un-airconditioned cars. I attempted to move to one of the 2nd class cars with functioning A/C, but every seat was full.

To my astonishment, every car but ours dated from the 1970s with enclosed compartments (see photo). I haven’t seen European equipment of that era in decades. Those cars were common when I worked in Munich 1975-76.

I walked the train hoping for a cafe car. Nope, nothing. The conductor says this train never has one. He vociferously argued with me when I disputed it should be called a real IC.

I found most of the end doors broken. They either wouldn’t open easily or were stuck open. Several of the WCs were locked and posted with out-of-service signs.

The train was an embarrassment to ÖBB in every respect but one: it arrived in Zagreb on time at 1720 (520p).  The poor train ride was the first I’ve had in Europe in decades and left us both wary of a repeat.

Train Zagreb to Split—or so we planned

When our gracious Zagreb landlady heard we were taking the train to Split (394 km, or about 245 miles, south of Zagreb), she strongly advised us to take a bus instead. Because, she said, Croatian trains are wholly unreliable. No A/C, broken toilets in every car and trains are often many hours late.

She told us of a western journalist who last summer tried to take the train to Split and finally arrived 18 hours later (it’s scheduled for 6 hours). Our landlady, a Zagreb native, said the trains often break down and dump passengers onto buses in the middle of nowhere.  A friend told us a similar story that happened to him and his wife several years ago here.

This sounded worse than our uncomfortable train experience the day before coming from Ljubljana, prompting Ruth and me to hightail it on foot to the bus station, a brisk 25-minute walk. There, we purchased bus tickets on a Zagreb-Split nonstop bus at 125p.

We then took a tram to the railway station to buy sandwiches for the bus trip and to see about refunding our train tickets. The prosciutto, cheese and tomato sandwiches at the station turned out to be delicious. However, I didn’t get a penny back from Croatian Railways on our tickets.

Oh, well. It was just $30 or so (the bus tickets were $39).  Part of vacation costs.

We then had to return to our flat to retrieve our luggage before taking a tram to the bus station (a tram route I had by then figured out in order to avoid another 25-minute walk). Unfortunately, Turkish President Erdoğan was visiting Zagreb that day, so all the central city trams were halted for security. It wasn’t fun lugging our bags on foot to the bus station, but we made it with a half hour to spare and were soon motoring towards Split. 

Zagreb to Split by Flixbus

It was a five-and-a-half-hour bus ride. As a train lover, I was disappointed that getting into and out of Zagreb by rail is imperfect, but our Flixbus was comfortable, the A/C worked, and it even had wi-fi. If we ever go back to Zagreb, we will be wiser about how to travel in and out.

It’s all part of the adventure.

Although subject to sun exposure, we had the catbird seats on the Flixbus ride in the upper front row. The comfortable Volvo vehicle had an expansive upper level and a small lower section.

Tunnel engineering in both Slovenia and Croatia is impressive. The steep hills and mountains make for many such bores as depicted, with 100 kph limits in both countries when underground. Toll road expressways in Croatia post 130 kph limits when in the open.

The Adriatic coast offered with dramatic vistas around every curve.

We arrived in Split shortly after 700p.  It was by then nearly dark.

I took the above photo the following morning of the sad, commie-era Split train station. Ruth commented how the sight of it sure wouldn’t inspire travelers to go by rail.  The train from Zagreb last night did finally arrive before midnight.  We had no regrets about taking the bus instead.

Catamaran ferry Split to Dubrovnik

We left our bags after the 1100a checkout hour with the apartment staff and mosied over to the Jadrolinija catamaran ferry terminal to see where to board at 300p for our 330p boat to Dubrovnik. It’s a six-hour trip because the fast ferry stops at three or four offshore islands before Dubrovnik.

The fast catamaran ferry was operated by Jadrolinija Lines (owned by the Croatian government). The big catamarans can carry over 300, and they stop at a number of offshore islands between Split and Dubrovnik. Hence the six hours aboard. If the ferry went nonstop, it could make the trip to Dubrovnik in about 3.5 hours.

Photos show the boat and our seats in the first row, port side. Also, the bar which serves an array of adult and other beverages and a few snacks. The bar accepted credit cards for payments, important since we were running short of Croatian Kuna currency (not every place takes Euros, of which we had plenty, and many do not take cards).

As we did the previous day for the long bus ride from Zagreb to Split, Ruth and I bought sandwiches in advance (ham, cheese, and tomato, and salami, cheese, and tomato), plus a large bottle of water, to enjoy en route. We supplemented with Heinekin (the only bottled beer for sale on the ferry). Not fine dining, but, hey, it was our best option that day.

The picture above was taken at the port town of Bol on the island of Brac in a short rain squall. Even though the window was dotted with raindrops, the photo highlights the rugged, steep hillsides characteristic of the Adriatic island of Croatia with the charming seaside town below.

So many big sailboats everywhere here, each one a floating huge pile of cash. Some of the boats are massive, with commensurate astronomical upkeep, dockage, and crew costs. My Lord, where does all this money come from?

Our ferry seats were comfortable and reasonably spacious. Perfectly fine for a trip of this length. With free wifi and electrical outlets to recharge our phones. Not to mention air-conditioning, thankfully. Did I mention it was really hot?

We stopped at Hvar Island where the great “black” (red) wine we enjoyed the previous evening is made.

Our catamaran from Split to Dubrovnik arrived at 915p after a thrilling ride through rough water during the final two hours. I wish we could have seen the seas, but darkness had by then overtaken us.

Not every passenger shared my enthusiasm for the sometimes-violent pitching and lurching. Many ran for the toilets to vomit, while others, bug-eyed, hung on to their seats for dear life. Real mariners are a rare breed these days, I guess.

Ruth and I bought city bus tickets from the port to the Old City of Dubrovnik, some miles distant, and we arrived at the Pile Gate (pronounced, we think, PEE’ LAY), around 1000p.

Croatian Air Dubrovnik to Zagreb

Following two nights in Dubrovnik, we arose at 330a to account for the slow walk through Old Town with my roller bag, which I had to carry over rough places but had no trouble arriving at the Old City gate by 405a where our driver had asked us to meet her.

Gobs of twenty-something Dubrovnik locals were then returning from a nearby nightclub, most alcohol-fueled, but all civil, though loudly talking and laughing (oh, to be young again!). They arrived in wave after wave of youth. It was a nice slice of real Croatian life we would have missed but for the necessity of being there at that early hour.

The bakery where we bought pastries the previous day for our wall walk (to be described in a later post) was open and catering to the Saturday night returning revelers before 400a. Smart move by the proprietress, I thought. Might double her sales for the day.

With a 615a flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, we hired a local driver to pick us up at 430a. She arrived at 420a, and we reached the airport at about 445a. The cost was 200 Kuna ($27) or €30 ($30); we paid in Kuna.

The airport looked new, but it’s 13 miles outside Dubrovnik, not convenient, and expensive to get to and from. Regular taxi said to be much more than $30, but we didn’t check the prices. No city buses as far we know (at least not at 430a).

One long queue had weirdly formed to check in for all flights on all airlines. This was before 500am.  No airport personnel was on duty when we walked in and joined the line, then a mad dash for the correct airline counter when the staff showed up suddenly at five o’clock. It looked like the Oklahoma land rush.

The counters included one for business class specifically for our Croatia Airlines flight, but by then I’d tried a self-service kiosk and had our boarding cards in hand. Since I’d paid about $15 extra for what passes for European business class, we were allowed to carry on all our bags at no charge. Most in economy were limited to one carry-on.

We, therefore, were able to go straight to security and then to our gate. Efficient and polite security and gate procedures. Pretty soon we were called for boarding. Except for a wheelchair, there was no special call for boarding by section. It was all at once.

We were seated in what Croatia Airlines calls “Bizclass” in seats 2A and 2C. The 1st 3 rows leave the center seat open. The 1st row was never occupied. OJ or water in real glass was offered during boarding.

Irritatingly, the port side overheads were full of FA stuff, forcing us to use the starboard overheads. I was glad we boarded ahead of other Bizclass customers.

After takeoff, the FAs closed the curtains between business and peon class, but doing so didn’t make our regular coach seats feel any larger.

The A319-100 was scheduled for 615a departure, but actually pushed back at 613a and was off the ground at 620a. Our scheduled arrival to Zagreb was 720a. We landed at 705a and reached the gate at 710a.

En route, a tiny box snack was served that included spicy Croatian salami, hard wheat crackers, and a small powdery walnut cake, all prepackaged in tight plastic. We eschewed all but the small cake. Coffee, tea, and water were available, too.

Zagreb, Split, and Dubrovnik airports have all been modernized and are reported to be quite spiffy. Certainly, Zagreb and Dubrovnik airports were; we didn’t see Split’s.

Leaving the airport, we caught the Croatia Airlines bus to Zagreb’s main bus station (the same place we caught the Flixbus to Split a few days before) but were surprised that it now costs 45 Kuna ($6) each, up from 30 Kuna, a 50% increase. Seems like a lot to go just 9 miles in 22 minutes.

It was a chilly 56° F. in Zagreb after a rain, the first kiss of autumn. Felt good after the high eighties of the past week. Temps later rose to the seventies.

Train Zagreb to Ljubljana

Once in Zagreb, we went first to the railroad station to confirm our 1247p train to Ljubljana. It was then posted on time (this was around 800a), but was nearly an hour late by noon.

Early morn, we strolled around central Zagreb time to kill four hours until our train.  Little things that impressed us at the station:

Plenty of train station luggage lockers are available and much cheaper than Ljubljana at 15 Kuna (a bit more than $2). Easier to use, too, as the Zagreb lockers use traditional keys.

A very nice lady who runs the train station snack bar on the left just inside the main entrance was happy to break Kuna bills into four 5-Kuna coins for the luggage locker. I gave her the fourth 5-Kuna coin as a thank-you (less than one dollar).

Since Kuna was worthless to us after leaving Croatia, the luggage locker payment and the gratuity used up our last bit of Croatian currency.

Smart, we thought. But then we walked to the nearby Botanical Garden and couldn’t get in because it cost 10 Kuna in cash only. No Euros. So no Botanical Garden visit.

Photos of the marvelous tram system in Zagreb include one of the many older trainsets still in operation. I’d guess some of them might date from the Tito era (pre-1980).

Yet Americans won’t build anything like it. Zagreb is a great example of a small, walkable city with a huge network of trams that everyone uses. Plenty of U.S. city analogs, but no light rail, thank you very much.

WCs at Zagreb train station are free and clean, unlike Ljubljana station’s, which are neither.

Photos capture the station, trains, and trams. We awaited the departure of our train from Zagreb.

Our advice: Never, under any circumstances, use Croatia Railways. Our train to Ljubljana posted later and later departure times and had no first-class accommodation even though so advertised. We held first-class tickets but were seated in a crowded 2nd class coach.

Only two of the four cars were air-conditioned. Luckily, we found seats in one of the two that had air. Later discovered the toilets worked in our car, too.

This is our third bad experience on Croatia Railways in three tries. Never again.

We stopped at Melania Trump’s hometown of Sevnica. It’s a beautiful burg sitting riverside in the steep Slovenian hill country.

Kudos to Slovenia Railways for making up time on our delayed train from Zagreb. We arrived before 400p, late, but leaving ample daylight for walking 25 minutes from the Ljubljana central station to the pedestrian-only city center.

Slovenia-Croatia travel in hindsight

We loved every minute!  Well, not so much the crummy train rides between Ljubljana and Zagreb.  But even those made for sharp experiences and a good contrast to otherwise enjoyable transportation modes.  Rental car, bus, train, airplane, and ferry: A great travel adventure!

Slovenian & Croatian cuisine

September 27, 2022

Partaking of scrumptious local fare, both fancy and simple, was a particular delight as my wife and I explored Slovenia and Croatia in early September

Lake Bled (Slovenia) – Old Cellar

We lucked into a walk-in table and delectable dinner at Old Cellar, lauded by locals and tourists alike for its all-Slovenian food. The menu offerings entice many authentic Slovenian dishes, such as pork belly with buckwheat dumplings and parsnip sauce. I opted for two starters.

The charcuterie pictured included the second starter of both hot-smoked and cold-smoked trout pate, visible on the near side. We devoured it all with gusto.

For dessert, we chose traditional Blejska Kremsnita, a Bled specialty of rich vanilla cream and custard cake layered top and bottom with puff pastry (also pictured). We fought over crumbs.

Lake Bled (Slovenia) – Pri Planincu

Another memorable dinner on our second evening in Bled, this time at the Pri Planincu restaurant. It’s a local favorite recommended to us by the knowledgeable owner of Penzion Mayer. She opened her family hotel after 20-odd years of managing restaurants, so she knows the food business.

Madame Mayer’s counsel proved wise indeed, though I was a little doubtful at first. The Pri Planincu lacks the charm of last night’s Old Cellar restaurant. Its appearance is a bit seedy. However, once our server, the outgoing Petra, took us in hand, I realized how wrong initial impressions can be.

When I asked if she had slivovitz (plum schnapps, an Eastern European specialty–the best always from the former Yugoslavia), Petra brightened and bragged Pri Planincu makes its own excellent and much sought-after “slivovica.”  I ordered it along with Slovenian champagne. You can see both in one of the photos, including the unusual bulb glass holding the housemade plum schnapps.

Slivovitz is an acquired taste. Truth be told, I don’t recall having any since I left Munich in 1976. At the time, I lived at 21, Parkstraße in what was then the Gastarbeiter (foreign guest worker) area.

On the corner, a half block distant from my Munich office was a Yugoslavian bar and restaurant run by my friend, Milan. I was frequently the sole non-Yugoslav in the place.  Milan plied me for nearly two years with good slivovitz made in his native country. I never forgot the warmth of Milan or his patrons. Drinking slivovitz in Bled brought back fond memories.

Petra recommended pork ribs seasoned with anise seed, accompanied by roasted kartoffel (potatoes) and vegetables. Ruth ordered Istrian fuzi (pasta) with truffles.

Both proved to be inspired choices. The pork ribs and potatoes were heavenly (pictured). I couldn’t stop uttering yummy sounds with every bite, and Ruth’s pasta with truffles was every bit as delicious.

Dessert was homemade apple strudel with whipped cream and vanilla ice cream (also pictured). Nearly sated, we nonetheless polished off the strudel and ice cream, both otherworldly good.

The bill was identical to last night’s at Old Cellar: €65. Worth every pfennig at both places!  Two nights of great dining cemented a permanent place in my memory for Bled.

Split (Croatia) – Adriatic Sushi & Oyster Bar

You can see the old Roman stone construction in the picture.  That’s because the restaurant is built in the fourth century A.D. Diocletian’s Palace.   It’s a gorgeous, romantic setting.

Closeups of the superb Hvar (on one of the Adriatic islands) Croatian “black” (red) wine, a 2016 vintage, can’t begin to impart its unique delicious flavors. It was our one big wine splurge of the trip, and well worth the price.

Dubrovnik (Croatia) – D’Vino Wine Bar

We sought out lunch at D’Vino Wine Bar after reading numerous recommendations, including Rick Steves.

Plavac Mali is the quintessential Croatian red varietal. Wines made from the Plavac Mali grape are rich, distinctive, and deep. It is unique to this part of the world. We enjoyed a flight of Plavec Mali wines, along with some equally good Croatian white wines, at D’Vino. It was our favorite experience in Dubrovnik along with walking the wall. A haven of heaven from the madding crowds. I’d be a loyal patron if I lived in the city.

Apparently, Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage, who played Tyrion Lannister (a lead character), agreed. Many King’s Landing scenes were shot in Dubrovnik.  During the series’ filming, Dinklage frequented D’Vino and scrawled his character’s famous lines on the mirror: “That’s what I do. I drink, and I know things.”

After drinking and eating at D’Vino, my wife Ruth and I knew a thing or two as well. Such as that Croatian wines are world-class, and it’s a shame the best ones are not exported to America. Also, the hummus, cheeses, olives, and cured meats we consumed for lunch were to die for!

Dubrovnik (Croatia) – Buza One Bar

Later that afternoon we found where locals and tourists were relishing the highlife at Buza One, a bar on the seaside rocks, accessed through a narrow hole in the wall. Note the kayakers and swimmers in the warm Adriatic.

Not a cheap place to pop over for a drink. A Moscow Mule was $22. But a gorgeous vista! We looked and left.

Zagreb (Croatia) – Glavni Kolodvor train station sandwich stands  

Train station sandwiches of prosciutto, cheese & tomato, and ham, cheese & tomato, were delicious.  The long French bread loaves, baked at the station, were especially tasty.

Otherwise, not much can be said for grub in Zagreb.  The menu for the little Papica snack bar in a park amused us because it was mostly in English offering American fast food. (I thought we were in Zagreb, not Des Moines.)

Ljubljana (Slovenia) – Sestica Restaurant

We were fortunate to eat in the outstanding traditional Slovenian restaurant our landlady recommended: Sestica.

I acceded to our waitress when she suggested Slovenian-style pork roast with potatoes. I could not have been happier with the selection. The pork tenderloin was infused with herbs that subtly and perfectly complemented the meat. It was a unique and flavorful masterpiece of the chef’s art. The accompanying gravy and mashed potatoes were the ideal blends.

Ruth ordered what was billed on the menu as a starter of tagliatelle with prawns and truffles. It was equal in divine flavors to the pig roast and proved to be an ample portion.

Desserts were as fine as the main courses. Ruth had the traditional Slovenian layered cream cake (not the same as the cream and custard cake of Lake Bled).

I asked for “one portion” of ice cream thinking it would be one scoop. Instead, three distinctive ice creams arrived, each imbued with fruit and flowers.

If I had seen the menu descriptions of ice creams on offer, I don’t believe I’d have found them appealing. And I would have been dead wrong. Each scoop burst with floral and fruit flavors in a way I’ve never experienced.

It was another extraordinary and memorable dinner, yet even with wine, the meal for two came to $58. Slovenia and Croatia meal and wine prices are quite reasonable.

We highly recommend Sestica should you find yourself in Ljubljana.

Ljubljana (Slovenia) – Spajza Restaurant

After the previous night’s spectacular Ljubljana dining experience, I had low expectations of an equal, let alone superior, experience for our last big meal in the Balkans. However, Julija, our apartment proprietress, local entrepreneur, and Ljubljana native, recommended a place even better that caters to locals and those in the know: Spajza Restaurant. We had to walk to it earlier to make reservations, as they don’t take walk-ins even if tables are available.

The pictures can’t begin to impart the wonder of our repast that final Slovenian evening. Starting with pear schnapps made by a local farmer, we moved on to a superb Slovenian sparkling wine as good as most French champagnes (not an accolade I offer lightly).

We shared one starter and one main course. It was more than enough to sate our appetites.

First to come was the “mixed cold fish plate” accompanied by extremely generous portions of both shaved truffles and minced truffles. I’ve never enjoyed such quantities of truffles in my life, nor tasted any finer. The quality alone would make top French or Italian chefs jealous. Ruth and I fought over bites of the tuna tartar, fish pate, and octopus salad, complemented by the scrumptious truffles.

To accompany the cold fish, we slurped a tasty porcini mushroom soup made from a vegetable base, quite different from the Italian cream base versions.

We polished off the main course of perfectly-prepared “young horse” fillet (a colt?) with mashed potatoes and sopped up the gravy with house-made bread until the plate was clean.

Desserts of a chocolate soufflé with an astonishingly good guyabano ice cream and a panna cotta with forest fruits did us in. Well, until our waitress offered two more pear schnapps on the house.

It was a superb way to end two great weeks in Slovenia and Croatia.

Afterward, Ruth and I walked around central Ljubljana one last time to soak in the beauty, charm, and sophistication of the city.  And to walk off the alcohol and calories, of course.

Now, two weeks later, I think back with pleasure on the marvelous meals served up in Slovenia and Croatia.  Feasting with locals is one of the great joys of travel for me.

Slovenia’s startling delights

September 20, 2022

After enduring today’s nearly normalized air travel pains and punishments to get to Slovenia (documented in three previous posts here, here, and here), my wife and I landed finally at the Ljubljana Airport (LJU) mid-afternoon on the last day of August.  The view of surrounding peaks and green vistas on approach was lovely and promising.  My Avis car was waiting, and we soon sped off in the direction of Lake Bled, our first stop in Slovenia.

Bled has real charm:  It’s more than just first impressions of Slovenia that make Lake Bled so appealing. After all, this was a favorite haunt of even the roughhewn Yugoslavian dictator Marshal Tito during his long reign in this part of the former Eastern European Soviet bloc behind the Iron Curtain.

Tito entertained infamous communist luminaries such as Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev and Cuban President Fidel Castro at his lakeside villa here, now a hotel. I have to wonder what the tough and bloody commissar Krushchev, the man Stalin relied upon to successfully defend Stalingrad against Hitler’s siege during World War II, must have thought of this nearly perfect, placid place.

Reminiscent of Germany and Austria, yet with a distinctive Slovenian character. We love it. The photos tell the tale. Penzion Mayer, where we stayed, is shown in the 2nd and 3rd pictures. My wife Ruth, is standing on our balcony in the third one below.

We were lucky that first evening to snag a table at Old Cellar. It’s booked solid for weeks. About which next week when I will sing the praises of dining in Slovenia and Croatia.

Bled farmhouse

As evening gathered, we planned the following day:  In the morning, a hiking adventure through a nearby gorge reputed to be stunningly beautiful, and the following afternoon we’d take a boat to the small island in the center.

After a few drizzles the first day, we found overcast skies the next morning, September 1st.  But low-hanging clouds in the Julian Alps of Slovenia didn’t deter us from enjoying the perfect day in and near Bled.

First, a hearty breakfast at the Penzion Mayer. We presented ourselves at 730am and were astonished at the huge spread. The smorgasbord of breads, fruits, cheeses, cured meats, jams, yogurts, and juices was rich and varied. Topped off with eggs made to order with several salamis and a coffee machine that produced perfect cappuccino, latte, and espresso. The croissants were as flaky as in France, and the brötchen as fresh and delicious as in Deutschland. It was hard not to overeat.

We burned off breakfast calories walking for nearly two hours around Lake Bled. Along the way, we had great views of the island in the lake, the only natural island in all of Slovenia. The photos above and below offer different perspectives of the island as we circled Lake Bled. 

Afterward, we drove our Arona rental car (made by a VW subsidiary in Spain) to nearby Vintgar Gorge. Though it was fun to drive the car’s 6-speed manual, Google lists the Arona as one of the 37 cars to avoid ever buying. No matter to us; we were just renting.

I do love driving a stick on the twisty, narrow European local roads, especially in little towns with virtually no visibility around 270° blind turns. Never know if I’ll encounter a farm tractor, an S Class Mercedes going too fast, a herd of milk cows, or a gaggle of cyclists practicing for their next weekend 100 km ride. Driving was as much fun as just being there and reminded me of the many pleasures of being in Euroland.

The Vintgar Gorge was crowded with cars from every part of Europe. I was surprised it was so busy on a Thursday and in the month of September—post the usual Euro vacation months.

The cost was €17 (charged online in advance for a specific entrance time) to walk the gorge’s impressive boardwalks and trails, plus €5 cash to park the car. We began the trail at 1245p and left the gorge at 125p to return to the carpark.

However, the gorge trail was strictly one-way in, and it wasn’t apparent until we headed out that the way back required lots of steep uphill climbs punctuated by equally precipitous and rocky downhills.  I was moaning and groaning incessantly by the time we arrived back at the parking lot at 230p. Ruth was patient and sweet to tolerate my muttered curses. I was just glad not to have tripped on the rocks going down.

The gorge was well worth my geezer travail, and I’d do it again (not sure Ruth would want to hear me gripe so much, though). Our frequent trips to Montana include a lot of comparable nature trails and hikes, and each one is a treasure. This one was unique and beautiful, as the pictures illustrate.

We then rested in our comfortable room at Penzion Mayer for a bit before heading to nearby Lake Bled for a boat trip to the island.

Ruth desired to take a boat to the small island in Lake Bled. Honestly, I was not excited about it. Only when we had left the dock did I begin to feel the utter tranquility of the experience and share the peacefulness with Ruth. She was right, and I’m so glad we did it.

The above photo is the view from Lake Bled island looking over to the Hotel Villa Bled, formerly Tito’s palatial digs (mentioned above). In the foreground of the picture is our traditional Lake Bled boat, called a pletna, used exclusively by licensed oarsmen to ferry up to 16 passengers to the island.

Pletna flat-bottomed boats on Lake Bled are said to have been a tradition since the 12th century. Just 23 oarsmen are licensed. They use two oars from a unique standing position to row the seven-meter boats.

It’s an impressive technique, as the next photo shows. You can see the church on the island as we began our return to Bled.

I was amused to witness our pletna oarsman immersed in a Slovenian polka video on his smartphone with the sound at full volume while waiting for passengers to reassemble at the island landing. It was a slice of real Slovenian life, as polka music was reputedly invented there and still much enjoyed.

The cost for the round-trip boat trip was €15 per person ($15 at the current exchange rate).

The following morning we went on seaside Piran on the Adriatic for two more nights with a stop in the Julian Alps on the way.  I’ll report on that glorious experience in a future post.

Who knew Slovenia was so beautiful and its people so charming?  I arrived with an open mind, expecting to have fun, but was still swept off my feet. 

Good service on Air France to Ljubljana

September 15, 2022

Following are my real-time notes made Tuesday and Wednesday, August 30-31, documenting my Air France flights JFK to Paris and connecting CDG to Ljubljana:

Air France AF7 JFK/CDG (777)

We made it to Air France and are now inside security. Took 90 minutes from the time our flight landed at JFK Terminal 8 (American) to get to Terminal 1 (Air France) on the JFK Air Train, get our boarding passes, and endure the conga line at security. But, unlike Delta, Air France got TSA Pre correct on our boarding passes AND reinstated my precious seat assignments. Now recuperating at the Priority Pass primeclass lounge near gate 8 from the stressful morning (documented in last week’s post).

At the gate, I was impressed with the simple, yet effective, method Air France uses to board planes.  Queues are set up for groups 1 (business class), 2 (premium economy), and then 3-4-5.  Reminds me of Southwest.  We are due to depart at 1930 (730p) and are boarding on time.

My wife and I were first in the Group 2 line, so first to enter Premium Economy. Premium Economy seats were comfortable and roomy. Plenty of pitch (distance between rows) and generous legroom. Not the claustrophobia of coach seats. Cushy blankets and large pillows were provided. We needed the blankets later, along with our jackets, when the cabin turned cold and stayed that way.

Hardwired “noise-canceling” headphones worked well enough to watch videos and dampen the baby’s incessant screaming some rows to the rear.

Bottles of Evian at our seats were refilled as needed. 

Small but adequate flight kits were distributed with the usual items: socks, eye shade, earplugs, toothbrush, and paste, etc. Plus Covid stuff (mask, wipes).

Boarding went smoothly and efficiently; buttoned up on time at 730p. But didn’t push back until nearly 800p and were not airborne until 905p (90 minutes late). Not weather-related; entirely JFK ground congestion of many aircraft jockeying for the runway.

No service until 1025p, a long interval after takeoff. Then an all-at-once dinner and beverages arrived.  Flight attendants came back at 1050p to clean up & offer 2nd rounds.

Monopole Champagne offered!  But disappointingly served at room temp.

Ruth got a very sad vin rouge labeled as from France. Not quite insipid. We drank it, though. Any port in a storm.

So-so tray meal of either veal (tasty) or pumpkin gratin (boring) entree, weird “salad” (spit-out bad), a nearly stale roll made palatable by rich butter, pretzels (pretzels? On Air France?), a rubbery wedge of cheddar wrapped in plastic (too salty; unworthy to be called a French cheese), and a mango-coconut custardy dessert with a graham cracker crust (best part of the meal).

Uninspiring movie list, but “Reservoir Dogs” didn’t disappoint (haven’t seen it in at least 10 years). I’d forgotten that Tarantino’s character gets a bullet in the head.

“Breakfast” came one hour before landing in a small bag unceremoniously dumped at our seats. The contents were frigid and the appearance unappetizing. Okay, I didn’t expect much on a seven-hour flight in a cabin that includes the word “economy.” But this IS Air FRANCE, after all. Not even a croissant?

Nope. Instead, a day-old mushy mini-muffin that must have fallen off the prison farm food truck. Along with a hard roll accompanied by the usual itty-bitty single-serving packages of butter, jelly, and cream cheese.

We threw out the awful muffins and stored the rest to paw through between flights in the terminal. Our connection from Paris to Ljubljana isn’t for three hours.

Altogether, despite my whining, Air France service is competitive or even a little better than aboard Delta, American, United, etc. in Premium Economy. I’m happy. It’s a far cry from business class, though soooo much superior to Economy.

Air France Hop! AF1036 CDG/LJU (E190)

It was a long, long walk, plus a terminal connector train, from Paris CDG Airport Terminal 2E to the bus which goes to diminutive Terminal 2G for our flight to Ljubljana.

Before reaching the bus stop we encountered a TSA-type security screen that required us to put liquids and lotions in a separate plastic bag. We didn’t have to remove shoes, however. Very friendly and professional.

Also uncrowded on this Wednesday morning.

Then the immigration screen where our passports were stamped.

Finally a bus ride to Terminal 2G. A really long ride, too. Ruth and I got a landside tour of the other CDG terminals en route. When finally discharged at 2G, we were underwhelmed. It’s functional and clean, but modest and plain: a typical commuter flight operation.

We deplaned into Terminal 2E from the JFK flight at 940am (70 minutes behind schedule due to the previous evening’s JFK runway congestion) and reached 2G at 1051a.  We were both surprised that inter-terminal transit took 71 minutes. I was relieved we had a long connection.

Not many folks wearing masks on planes like us. Hard to pin down an accurate number, but less than 20%, I reckon. Young people especially eschew masks.

I was very pleased with the Air France Hop! Flight CDG to LJU: on time, no fuss but clean and efficient operation, and comfortable seats.  We reached Ljubljana Airport on time at 230p and had our Avis car by 300p. Ruth expertly navigated as I drove to Bled (Lake Bled) by 415p where we stay tonight and tomorrow night at the Penzion Mayer.

My first impression of Slovenia is of Tyrol. It looks so Bavarian and Austrian. And thus happily familiar (since lived in Munich 1975 through 1976).

Tomorrow we explore Lake Bled and its surroundings. Tonight we dine at a traditional Slovenian restaurant called Old Cellar.

It’s a great feeling to finally be here and to have been transported so efficiently and comfortably by Air France.  Bravo to the airline.  After a bad start from Raleigh, I am relaxed.

Getting to Paris, the hard way

Following are my real-time notes made last Tuesday, August 30, documenting the troubled saga of getting from Raleigh to my flight JFK to Paris:

About a half year back, my wife and I planned two weeks in Slovenia and Croatia leaving today and returning mid-September. With careful attention to detail, I researched and booked tickets through Delta from Raleigh to JFK, then using codeshare flights on Air France JFK to Paris and Air France subsidiary Hop! Air from Paris to Ljubljana (Slovenia).  Got a great fare in Premium Economy, too.

But yesterday when I checked us in, Delta’s website omitted my TSA Pre-check validation on the boarding passes. But included them just fine on my wife’s passes (we’re both longtimeTSA Global Entry-Pre members). That prompted me to spend a few minutes on the Delta Elite phone line with an agent to correct that. 

“A few minutes” eventually turned into four-plus hours lasting late into last night, which I documented in a blog post this morning while waiting to leave for the airport, which you can read here. 

Just as I completed that post, I got a text from Delta saying this:

“The 30 Aug Delta flight you’re tracking (DL4787) from Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina to Kennedy Intl, New York has, unfortunately, been canceled due to weather. Please visit delta.com/flight-status to request notifications for another flight.”

This led to a mad scramble with another Delta agent via phone for yet another hour to find a replacement flight to JFK. A great and generous friend rushed us to RDU just after 10am with me still on the phone all the way to the airport with Delta. 

I nervously paced up and down inside the RDU terminal negotiating with the Delta agent who offered several unattractive alternatives (like downgrades from Premium Economy) before finally rebooking us on an American Airlines flight at 1211p (rather than our original 235p Delta flight). I stood my ground and got a better deal after rejecting a lot of poor offers.  

“How much will that American flight cost me?” I asked suspiciously. 

“Not a penny,” she said, “because we at Delta canceled your flight.” 

Frankly, I was stunned. It’s been years since an airline offered to rebook me on another airline at no cost to me. That was standard practice many years ago, but not in several decades.

I took it, of course, and we hustled over to the American counter to get our boarding passes. American, unlike Delta, made sure I was authorized to use the TSA Pre line, and I even added our AAdvantage frequent flyer numbers to the record. As a Lifetime Gold (I am a million miler at American), that also got us primo seats in Main Cabin Extra right behind first class. 

We rushed through security and to the gate, only to find the flight was late by 45 minutes. No matter, we still arrived JFK about 200p, and our Air France flight doesn’t depart until 730p for Paris. 

We made it to Air France and are now inside security. Took 90 minutes from the time our flight landed at JFK Terminal 8 (American) to get to Terminal 1 (Air France) on the JFK Air Train, get our boarding passes, and endure the conga line at security. 

But, unlike Delta, Air France got TSA Pre✔️ correct on our boarding passes AND reinstated my precious seat assignments on the two-seat side of tonight‘s aircraft (an aisle and window). We are now recuperating from the stressful morning by enjoying the Priority Pass primeclass lounge near gate 8 with a G&T.

Despite the Delta snafus, I am joyful and relieved that we are actually traveling again after a very long period staying at home. Looks like we’re going to get there. Well, at least as far as Paris, anyway. 

More in the next post on Air France service in Premium Economy on their 730p departure and of Paris CDG Airport. 

By the way, that Delta BS about our original Raleigh to JFK flight having been canceled “due to weather” was just that: BS.  It’s been gorgeous here at JFK all day and still is. “Weather” is a weak lie for what was likely a crew shortage. Maybe I should tell Buttigieg so he can spank Delta.

The nightmare begins

August 30, 2022

Delta Airlines made my life miserable 24 hours before my flights to JFK, Paris, and Ljubljana (LJU, in Slovenia). I thought only United Airlines had perfected that agony

My wife and I were looking forward to our long-planned vacation to Slovenia and Croatia. Many months ago, I snagged a good Premium Economy fare RDU/LJU on Delta codeshare flights with Air France via CDG. The itinerary is three segments: RDU/JFK on Delta, then Air France JFK/CDG, and AF subsidiary Hop! CDG/LJU. 

All seemed well until I checked in yesterday for travel today.

Online check-in at delta.com went smoothly until I discovered several anomalies with the boarding passes.  The most glaring error was no “TSA PRE-check” on my boarding passes.  I’ve been a TSA Global Entry/PRE member since the programs began.  Boarding passes for my wife, also a longtime Global Entry/PRE member correctly showed “PRE”.  Less important, but just plain weird, was the presence of double identical boarding passes for the 2nd segment and triple identical boarding passes for the 3rd segment for both of us.

I checked and rechecked and rechecked again all my profile settings at delta.com.  My TSA Trusted Traveler number was intact and correct.  My full name was spelled correctly in the profile, on my passport, on my TSA Global Entry card, but missing the suffix “III” on my ticket.  The suffix from being named William Allen III has tripped up airlines more than once, so I thought I had found the problem.  TSA requires a perfect name match (including suffixes) on every part of a PNR (passenger name record).  So I called the Delta Elite line and was happily surprised to have just a five-minute wait.

Five minutes to talk to a live agent, but after 42 minutes, she was hopelessly confused and muttered that I’d have to take it up with airport agents before hanging up on me.  That was my first hour of wasted time and highly frustrating for me.  I was deeply anxious when she disconnected me.

I waited about thirty minutes until I had calmed down and tried again.  This time I got a Delta agent who really knew her stuff and wanted to help.  She dug into the history of my booking and discovered (after about 40 minutes) that a Delta agent who had long ago helped to set up this itinerary when the delta.com website had choked and refused to let me complete the ticketing process had inadvertently left off the suffix on my name.  When I asked why she had not simply used my full and correct name from my delta.com SkyMiles profile, she had no idea.  But the ticket, she assured me, would have to be reissued before spitting out new boarding passes properly showing “PRE” on them.

That call was escalated from her to a supervisor, and then to a special Delta agent skilled at reissuing tickets in Singapore (I asked).  Later in the call, which by then had been 90 minutes, he had to get his supervisor in Singapore involved, too, and it took the two of them to do the job. Turned out because my wife is on the same record locator that both her ticket and mine had to be reissued.  By then four Delta agents had been involved.

I pleaded with the Singapore-based agent and his supervisor to preserve our precious seat assignments in the Premium Economy cabin on the Air France flights.  He assured me they would do their best.  He repeated what I had already discerned:  Delta issued my ticket wrong to begin with, he said, and it doesn’t match my TSA Trusted Traveler number for PRE and Global Entry.  Just the same, he first “unchecked” us in and asked me to retry checking in.  I did.  Same results.  Three times I had to give him and previous agents my TSA Trusted Traveler number so they could verify it was correct. Ditto for assuring them that my name was spelled correctly everywhere in the online profiles except the lack of a suffix on the PNR itself.

I warned the agent that we wouldn’t go if we got downgraded due to him and his supervisor releasing seats on any of the six segments. This was already a nightmare. I was by then super unhappy and frustrated and beginning to wish that we weren’t going on the trip at all.

At 2 hours, 49 minutes the agent in Singapore and his supervisor had tried everything short of reissuance but still could not resolve why my Trusted Traveler number wasn’t working to show PRE on my boarding passes.  So they carefully reissued the tickets and managed to keep all our seat assignments—a miracle.

At 3+ hours I stopped counting how long I’d been on the phone.  The agent in Singapore assured me it would work now and asked me to refresh my delta.com screens and see if my boarding passes showed “PRE”; I did as he suggested, and the boarding passes were still missing the “PRE” designation.  

Both agent and supervisor in Singapore were stunned.  The names all matched after being reissued, but they were still unable to resolve the PRE conundrum.  My Trusted Traveler number has been in the Delta record for 8+ years without a problem, always working perfectly up to now. And yet…

So today I’m going to RDU tomorrow three hours prior to our flight to see if the agents there at the counter can fix it. I’m taking my Global Entry card from TSA to show them and TSA that even though it’s not printed on my boarding pass I’m nonetheless a member. 

If Delta can’t even get this right—something that has always worked fine for me up to now—and four expert agents and supervisors cannot figure out what their systems did to screw this up, I have to wonder what else is in store for us.  We haven’t even left home, and this flying experience is already looking grim.

And just this minute I got a text message saying that our first flight (RDU/JFK) has been cancelled. So the nightmare is far from over. I am on hold with Delta Elite right now.

Road trip wiles

August 25, 2022

A recent two-day, 1,059-mile road trip that inevitably included much Interstate highway driving was a misery of frustrating long delays in motionless traffic contrasted with frenzied racetracks verifying speed limits have become meaningless.  Navigating between the alternating stoppages and rocketing cars was stressful, yet eye-opening.

Somehow, I thought a road trip would be fun and relaxing.  Especially given that the airport chaos this year since Americans decided the Covid pandemic was over (it isn’t) has reached epic proportions.  While I don’t mind rolling the dice with air travel, I do admit that the current wretchedness of flying, coupled to my own bad airline experiences in the past twelve months, made road trips appear to be an appealing alternative.  So when my wife and I planned to take our daughter back to the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee, we devised what we thought would be a serene overland excursion.

As far as possible, our route was mapped along minor roadways and highways, purposefully avoiding the maddening Interstates.  Apart from congestion, I don’t enjoy the sterility and sameness of expressways.  Designed to be commercial conduits with limited access, throughways necessarily keep travelers at a distance from the real world.  Due to time and sheer geography, though, Interstates are unavoidable.  Our path from Raleigh took us along Interstate highways 40, 85, 65, and 24 in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee.

After tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of miles driving on Interstates, I’m hardly naïve about busy limited-access highways. Nonetheless, plying those roads on this journey gave me insights into the new norm of post-pandemic American driving habits and conditions.  It wasn’t pretty.  For starters, I began to wonder: What speed limits? 

Okay, I admit that I routinely exceed speed restrictions on highways using my own formula for avoiding a citation.  Traffic congestion, road conditions, and weather permitting, I generally run about seven MPH over the limit.  If the posted speed is 55, I keep it on 62.  If 60, then about 67.  On 65 mph roads, I drive at 72 or 73.  When the signs say 70, I always keep it under 80 by a couple of MPH.  Risky, maybe, but usually those speeds don’t attract blue lights.  Up to 2022, hewing to my system has usually put me in the middle of the pack among Interstate motorists. I pass some vehicles; some pass me. 

But on our recent trip, I passed only a few RVs (the blasted things always dawdle along at a snail’s pace) and some tired-looking, overloaded eighteen-wheelers.  In fact, doing 78 in a 70 zone, cars and big trucks routinely passed me like I was standing still.  Some flashed by at speeds that had to be well above ninety.

I understand speed.  Way back in the 1970s I lived and worked in Germany (Munich was my home city), and I quickly learned on Autobahns to obey the ubiquitous road signs that read: “RECHTS FAHREN” (“Drive right”).  Getting into the left lane was strictly for the most powerful Mercedes and daring drivers.  Speeds of over 100 MPH were legal and commonplace.  Each adjacent lane was slower and slower, with pondering trucks and puttering automobiles never leaving the far right lane.

That was and is lawful, and every German knows the rules of the Autobahn.  That ain’t so in today’s America.  American drivers are ignoring the limits by a wide margin, and the custom of slower traffic staying in the right lane is ancient history.  Fast drivers take the path of least resistance in whatever lanes have openings.  I’m okay with that strategy.  However, it takes persistent care and concentration to make safe lane changes of my own in that environment.

Then there are the chronic Interstate slowdowns and stoppages.  Some are caused by crashes, while most are due to construction, with lanes suddenly closed off for miles, squeezing every vehicle into a narrower roadway.  Either way, the result is usually miles of exasperating backups.

I thought nothing could make me feel as powerless as being stranded on a plane sitting sometimes for hours in runway snarls waiting to take off.  Having no control—and often no knowledge—of what is causing such delays or when we will move again was agonizing.  Sitting on the ground at LaGuardia, as happened more often than not, I used to ponder the irony of being aboard an instrument of mobility capable of reaching the speed of sound sitting idle.  Many times runway delay times exceeded the one-hour flying time to Raleigh.

The same feeling of profound helplessness with no information comes over me sitting in a miles-long Interstate backup.  But I’ve devised a strategy for avoiding these menaces, too.  I always keep my navigation going on my phone even when I know the route.  As soon as any extended red (stopped traffic) shows up ahead, I take the exit before it begins.  Often it’s a challenge to find a route around the congestion points because my phone’s GPS doesn’t (yet) have an option for avoiding stopped traffic.  Using dead reckoning and the local area roads that show up on the GPS map, though, I can always find a way around. 

It’s a crapshoot whether my method is faster than any given stoppage, but for me, that isn’t critical.  I just need to keep moving.  I need to feel like I am in control of my driving rather than being at a dead stop and blind on the Interstate.  No matter how slow, I am able to keep moving.

Truth is, I like driving.  I’ve always enjoyed it.  So I’ll be taking more road trips, including one my wife and I have long dreamed of across the country to the West.  I’ll incorporate the revelations regarding the current state of Interstate highway driving into my future trip plans, especially paying close attention to possible detours around areas of chronic congestion, such as major interchanges and urban areas.  I hope GPS providers catch on to the need for alternate routes around congestion, too.

Uncertain Slovenia & Croatia trip planning

August 18, 2022

Six months ago, my wife and I began planning two weeks of travel exploring Slovenia and Croatia in September.  Booking air Raleigh to Ljubljana (Slovenia) was a little bumpy, but fairly easy, so I assumed scheduling trains, rental cars, and accommodation in that part of Europe would be a snap, like in France and Italy.  Well, it wasn’t that easy.

Surveying RDU/LJU flights was pretty straightforward, but at first, I couldn’t find even coach fares under about $2,000.  That seemed high to me.  Trolling various airline websites and third-party travel portals, I eventually stumbled on a Delta/Air France codeshare itinerary for $1609 round trip in Premium Economy.  Outbound, it was RDU to JFK, connecting to AF to Paris CDG, then Air France partner Hop! Air CDG to Ljubljana on a CRJ 900.  Returning was again on Hop! Air LJU/CDG before connecting to AF CDG to Boston, followed by a final leg on Delta BOS/RDU.  Times were reasonable in both directions.  I found that on a third-party site.

The same flights and fare were visible on Delta.com.  However, when I tried to book it, the site would repeatedly hang and not let me pay.  Only after phoning the elite line (which still involved a callback) was I successful in getting a knowledgeable Delta agent to complete the booking.  After unsuccessfully plumbing every other connecting option in her system for lower fares, she commented that I was lucky to have found such a bargain in Premium Economy.  Her reassurance salved the bruising to my wallet of shelling out $3200 for two tickets just to Europe.

Okay, I thought, flying into Ljubljana was a faster option than routing to Vienna and then taking a train—our alternative idea.  Now we needed a rental car at Ljubljana Airport for our first week, and I set about fishing for a good rate.  I had a hard time, though, finding even a small car for less than about $100 per day.  Luck again smiled on me one afternoon when a less rapacious $70/day rental suddenly presented at Avis.  Not cheap, but looking more and more like a bargain, I hit the “Book” button.  Having been an Avis Presidents Club member for decades, I signed in with my Wizard number and proceeded to hold the car. 

Then, like the Delta system, Avis.com wouldn’t let me complete the reservation.  Try as I might, I could not confirm my booking.  Squinting at the screen after the fifth or sixth failure, I noticed a small notice at the bottom of the screen saying there was a “problem” with my credit card.  I always use my American Express Platinum Card for car rentals because of the superior auto insurance protection Amex provides.  Closer scrutiny of the message revealed that this Avis location doesn’t accept Amex.

What?  I’ve rented from Avis all over the world, and even remote and backwoods locations in Belize, Botswana, and Bolivia have accepted the Amex card embedded in my Avis account.  Why not modern Slovenia?  Nonetheless, I wanted that rate, the cheapest I could find, so grit my teeth and added a Capital One Visa Card to hold the Avis car.

Meanwhile, my wife was busy booking hotels, Airbnbs, and authentic B&Bs in the various places we were visiting, such as Bled and Dubrovnik.  Some wanted payment soon or right away, and some were extra slow confirming.  Sure, we expected some idiosyncrasies, but the overall experience was lengthy, difficult, and inconsistent.  One hotel in Piran offered a prepaid parking permit, which we opted for, but never replied to several emails to confirm.  Similar uncertainties characterized attempted communications with other hostelries in both countries.  In those places, we are winging it and hoping that we actually have the reservations we asked to confirm.

Next was to book a flight from Dubrovnik to Zagreb.  That proved to be fairly easy via the Croatia Airlines website, though I thought the airline’s strict carry-on and checked bag rules were confusing.  I decided to resolve that conundrum by booking “Business Class” for a little more money: 1779 Kuna (about $239 for two seats).  Croatia Airlines biz class is typically European with seats configured 3-3 and the center seat left vacant in the first few rows.  To me, the biggest business class advantage is the checked bag and carry-on luggage allowances.

Various hardcopy travel guides and online booking sources pointed us to ferry services from Split to Dubrovnik, but every one of the recommendations we consulted was wrong.  I finally managed to buy ferry tickets for $40 each through Jadrolinija Lines.  The only downside is the arrival time in Dubrovnik after dark.

We needed several trains and were directed by a number of sources to the Austrian Railways site for booking (ÖBB) in Slovenia and Croatia.  To my consternation, neither ÖBB nor Rail Europe yielded anything.  Rail Europe returned “Sorry, no results found” to every inquiry. 

For a train from Zagreb to Split, I eventually located the HŽPP (Croatian Railways) site, which was better than any alternative I could find.  Once again, multiple rail travel guides for Croatia and Slovenia cited train times that proved incorrect.  HŽPP showed just one train in the available time period we needed, and I very carefully booked seats for it.  I was especially vigilant to use the European date format of day-month-year, too, and I double-checked it before committing to buying tickets in first class (just slightly roomier than coach).  Yet, somehow, the Croatian Railways site changed it to the next day and charged my card. 

Frustrated, I repeated the exercise, and this time noticed the same strange one-day change of dates, which I corrected the second time.  Unfortunately, only second class was available on the correct date, as first class was apparently sold out.  I took what I could get. 

A few days later I emailed HŽPP to ask for refunds on the erroneous travel day booking.  A reply came back promptly indicating my request had been forwarded to the “compenent Department” for processing.  To date, no word from “compenent Department” about getting our money back, nor have I seen a credit on my card.

We aren’t yet done, either.  Despite multiple stabs at discovering how to book a train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, I can’t figure it out.  Friends who have made the trip say plenty of seats are always available the day of travel at the central train station.  I hope so.  But, as the hackneyed saying goes, hope is not a strategy.

The same unknown train information holds true when returning days later near the end of our trip from Zagreb to Ljubljana just before we fly home.  Once again, folks who’ve done it assure us that open seats can be purchased at the Zagreb station on the day we need to travel.  Nonetheless, it is uncertain, and I’m uneasy.

Altogether, I found getting things organized for our upcoming trip to these two Euro countries exasperating.  I imagined trip details for Slovenia and Croatia would be simple to arrange.  After all, past arrangements for travel to and through more exotic locales such as Malaysia, Rarotonga, Peru, and Thailand weren’t hard.  This one, though, took a lot more work and concentration.  I’m looking forward to comparing the actual trip experience to parts of what used to be Yugoslavia to the struggles of this trip’s planning.

Pricey South Africa

August 8, 2022

Having flown once or twice annually to South Africa since 1991, I’ve never experienced such high airfares as now in premium economy and business, the so-called “premium” classes.  Whether in dollars or miles, it’s a costly trip these days.  If I wanted to go RDU/JNB this week in business class, round trip would be a whopping $14,709 on Delta or a mere $10,974 on United. Ouch!

Neither would I find an award travel bargain at 990,000 miles to fly in Delta One business class.

Heck, Air France is charging a million points from Paris to South Africa to sit up front, which may take the prize for most expensive award travel to date.  But I’ll stick to looking at fares and classes from my home airport here in Raleigh (RDU) since I don’t live in the City of Light.   

As a basis for comparison, here’s what I paid for recent roundtrips RDU/JNB (Johannesburg):

  • June 2019 – $2110 on Delta in premium economy (for travel Feb-Mar, 2020)
  • January 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Jul-Aug, 2021)
  • March 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Oct-Nov, 2021)
  • June 2021 – $3300 on United in business (for travel in Feb-Mar, 2022)
  • May 2022 – $1724 on United in premium economy (for travel in Feb-Mar, 2023)

I used Google Flights to look at economy (Y), premium economy (PE), and business (J) fares for mid-month, midweek travel for 14-day stays. 

I started with near-term dates in August, just a few days out, and then checked every three months (November 2022, February 2023, and May 2023). 

Only Delta and United fly nonstop from the USA to South Africa now that South African Airways is kaput.  SAA has become the Alitalia of the southern hemisphere, failing frequently and having to be bailed out. 

Both Delta and United now fly to both Johannesburg (JNB) and Cape Town (CPT), DL from Atlanta, and UA from Newark.  I checked fares to both JNB and to CPT.  However, Delta doesn’t start flights to Cape Town until December 17, so fares for the direct service in August and November are nonexistent.

I also checked a few fares for flights connecting through Europe.  Direct flights from EWR and ATL are 15-16 hours to both JNB and CPT—long hauls, but still preferable to 6-12 hour layovers in European gateways like London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and Paris. That makes the total travel time much longer than using the nonstops.  I looked at AA/BA fares via LHR, AA/Qatar (QR) fares via Doha, and finally, Delta/Air France or Delta/KLM fares through CDG and AMS.

I did not attempt to shop for the cheapest (or most expensive) dates within a month.  Google Flights conveniently has a price matrix for entire months to allow that, but I wanted to use midmonth two-week periods, usually Monday or Tuesday outbound and Tuesday or Wednesday return, letting the fares fall where they may based on demand for those dates, not on low-fare shopping.

Here, then, are my matrices of airfares:

My principal takeaways are:

  • Except for near-term dates, economy fares are cheap and varied the least.
  • Cape Town economy fares on DL and UA are a little higher than to JNB.
  • Delta PE fares to both JNB and CPT are generally higher than UA.
  • Delta PE fares to JNB on some dates are not significantly higher than I paid in 2019.
  • United PE fares to JNB are generally higher than I paid back in May, though similar on some dates.
  • Delta business fares to both JNB and CPT are sky-high five-figure sums, whereas United’s business fares are half or less except for August (just a few days in the future). 
  • Many Delta premium fares were not returned, perhaps indicating sold-out cabins on the dates I checked.  Does this imply that the market favors Delta’s PE and J products, or something else? 
  • I don’t know.  I’ve flown both United’s and Delta’s current business class, and there was a difference in customer service in flight, not seat product.  But the difference isn’t worth paying double in my opinion.   
  • United fares were returned for nearly every date and class to both cities and were mostly far cheaper than Delta.  After three round trips to South Africa in the past 12 months in UA Polaris cabins, I just don’t see how Delta One cabins merit a 100% fare premium.

Next, I matched award mileage to dollar costs for both UA and DL using only the May 2023 dates for RDU/JNB: 

Damnably expensive in business class in either miles or dollars!  But if points are still worth 1.0 to 1.2 cents each, then award travel is pretty close in costs to real money.  

Which is no real comfort.  Because no matter how I price flying a premium cabin to South Africa, the cost is dear.  I’m glad to be locked in to fly next February and March for $1700 in premium economy.

Immobility isn’t me

July 26, 2022

Stasis is not my thing. I’ve never liked to remain in one place very long.  So this summer has been especially hard on me.  I’ve been stuck in Raleigh, on the ground, ever since returning from South Africa in March.  Almost six months!  My Lord!  I am antsy just thinking about that.

But travel by air, by rail, and by rubber tire became such a struggle this summer that I couldn’t justify the gain over pain.  Flying by itself saw too many people pushing against too few professionals to keep the planes in the air. 

Made worse by ballooning airfares and inflated pump prices, not to mention potential super-spreader Covid events at crowded airports, on board planes, and often at jam-packed destinations.  Sure, I’m vaxed and vaxed and boosted, but so what?  Suddenly becoming Covid positive from the stranger in seat 22E is a surefire way to kill the fun. 

Yesterday I got excited about driving 130 miles to Altavista, Virginia to meet two friends—ancient rail guys like me—for lunch.  Though I was on pre-Amtrak trains through the little burg a number of times in the 60s, it was always at night.  Until yesterday, I’d never seen the historically notable rail town where the Virginia Railway was born (now the Norfolk Southern) and where the famous Lane Chest Company thrived.  Instead of being tired from the drive there and back, upon arrival home last night I was thrilled to have learned about Altavista and to have poked around all over town.  I reflected on it until bedtime as I pored over maps.

No doubt that’s why I have lived the life I have, one of a vagabond of sorts, always on the move, always curious. Had it not been for my wonderful wife, I would have continued renting rather than buying a house.  Because buying, to me, symbolized being chained to one place.  Many folks like the anchor of “home” and equate that to their house, their town, their state, and their country.  Stability, inertia, call it what you will.  That was never me.  I embrace change and like moving on.  Home is wherever I am.

Travel and exploration of the world seem to have been hardwired in me from birth.  I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t keen on seeing what was around the next curve in the road or over the distant hill.  When I go to Montana, as I have most summers for twenty-odd years to visit my wife’s family cabin in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, I relish finding back roads from Billings that are new to me en route. 

I do the same when cruising slowly over dirt roads in the Kruger National Park in South Africa; when wandering secondary byways through the South Island of New Zealand; when rambling on foot through streets in Hong Kong’s New Territories; and when discovering local café gems among the non-touristy back alleys of Peru’s Cuzco.  The delight of a novel experience rewards my peripatetic nature.

Perhaps I have some Romany blood.  The Gypsy in me is always planning where to go next, never quite satisfied with where I am.  That said, I am always glad to have arrived and to have seen new places (however ordinary), experienced native cuisine (often out of the ordinary), and especially to have met local people.  Often the social interactions make the most lasting memories. 

I’ve been stuck in Raleigh (a great place, to be sure) for too long already.  I’m sure looking forward to eating and meeting my way across Slovenia and Croatia in September!

Lost horizons

July 20, 2022

Where to go in these troubled days of travel challenges?  Covid echoes, climate change, political upheaval and unrest, and economic troubles are shrinking my possibilities for travel.

Of course, some places are perennially on my don’t-go list.  Who wants to risk traveling to North Korea, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Iraq, Sudan, or Somalia?  Definitely those places seem like a one-way ride.

I guess now I can add Afghanistan to that list.  Too bad.  Seeing the awesome Hindu Kush range of the Himalayas in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a childhood dream, ain’t happening.

Thank goodness I spent several weeks touring Venezuela in the early 90s with locals because I can’t see it now.  My experiences camping on the banks of the mighty Rio Orinoco were wondrous.  We caught piranha on tiny hooks using bread balls for bait and roasted the delicious fish over open fires.  I won’t miss the mosquito clouds at night, however.

Probably I won’t be returning any time soon to Myanmar (Burma), either, though I found the country and its people fascinating and friendly when I visited in 1994 or so.  Well, except for the world-famous Bagan, home to 3500 Buddhist pagodas.  One day of seeing temple after boring, dusty temple was more than enough for me, many of which looked like the one before.  I called it “pagoda hell” and left two days early to return to Yangon (Rangoon).

Thanks to China’s unrelenting repression of democratic independence, the Hong Kong I remember so fondly from the 1980s to my last trip in June of 2018 is gone. I documented these bittersweet memories:

In fact, all of China is now closed due to Covid and is suddenly a chilly place for an American, anyway.  We loved touring parts of China and were gradually returning to visit new provinces, savoring new foods and unique provincial dishes.  China, after all, spans five geographical time zones and borders fourteen countries, the second most of any country in the world after Russia, so it’s impossible to exhaust new areas to poke about in. 

Ukraine is definitely off the list.

I wouldn’t say I had a hankering to visit Ghana per se, but I am interested in West Africa.  Not so much with the Ebola-like Marburg Virus on the loose and with rampant crime and corruption.  West Africans don’t seem big on civil liberties, public health, and public safety.

Even friendly, delightful Canada isn’t much welcoming Americans these days, not that I blame them.  Finally, we can go back, however, with a little hassle.

Okay, Australia and New Zealand have reopened, but their governments’ hair-trigger Covid policies could trap me there should an outbreak occur. 

For decades I’ve revered and traveled back to the wondrous beauty of our United States western parks, yet record floods and fires have made trip planning there uncertain.  Who wants to suddenly be denied entry to Yellowstone or Yosemite?

Hawaii was a perennial favorite since I worked and lived there in 1981, but horrendous traffic congestion and recent giant waves breaking over oceanfront condos do not entice me back.

Ditto for the nearly year-round tropical storms and hurricanes of Florida and the Gulf Coast, not to mention outbreaks of brain-eating bacteria from a simple splash in the water and pythons large enough to swallow alligators in the Everglades.

Most of Mexico is out unless I want to be robbed and quite possibly murdered. For the record, I like living.

Similarly, Central American countries seem to vie for the top tropical isthmus spot in which to be massacred.  Uh, no, thanks!

Cheap camping safaris to the Botswana wilderness are but a remembrance.  I paid about $100 per day for nearly fifteen years for fabulous trips to some of Africa’s most glorious game parks like Chobe, Savuti, Moremi, and Okavango.  All clients had to do then was to put up and take down our own tents, pick up some deadwood every day for the nightly campfire, and try not to get eaten when we ventured out to the lavs at night (none of the campgrounds were fenced). Sadly, the tour operators wised up and realized that if they spiffed up the experience a little, they could charge a lot more.  Now a similar, somewhat more luxurious “camping” safaris cost about a grand a day per person.  For ten times what I paid, clients no longer suffer the hardships of tent work or fetching firewood.

The everlasting damp chill of midsummer England that I experienced nearly every day when I lived and worked there in the 70s and 80s is but a memory as new heat records are set daily.  London’s allure fades as the temperature rises to the century mark.  Buckingham Palace guards need to trade their bearskin hats and heavy woolen uniforms for Maui Jim shades, Te Mana Tahitian shirts, and tropical khaki shorts.

Neither does the Eiffel Tower beckon when it’s 104 degrees, not even sipping coffee at a traditional street cafe if I have to park myself in stifling heat.  Who wants Marrakesh weather in Paris?

Seems like many places across Europe are burning, with new reports every day.  Hmm, no more jaunts to Spain or Provence for a while.

And it isn’t even August yet when most Europeans go on a month-long holiday.

A leisurely tour of Sri Lanka is now inadvisable.  Thank goodness we saw the island nation several years ago in better times.  I feel terrible for their food and energy calamities.

I always yearned to see St. Petersburg and Moscow, but now must hope that Putin’s successor views Americans in a better light before I plan to travel to Russia.

I tell myself that it all doesn’t matter since airfares are sky-high and airline service miserable.  So flying is a crapshoot.  But I still long to go.

Ditto for trains.  Not even Amtrak can get staff or parts to keep its aging fleet of locomotives and rolling stock moving, resulting in cancellations and many hours of delay, not to mention minimalist or nonexistent onboard service.  The pathetic tray meals currently served on the New York to Miami train “Silver Star” are nicknamed “Star-vation.”

That leaves driving.  Oh yeah, gas prices.  A glimmer of hope there, however.  Yesterday I saw $3.99 per gallon here in Raleigh—wow!  Maybe a road trip is in the cards after all.  Starting with a short hop of two to three hours to the North Carolina coast for a cooling dip in the surf.  I just hope I don’t become another summer of 2022 shark attack victim.

Old dog, new tricks

July 6, 2022

Despite being a stubborn creature of habit, I learn and adapt to new realities.  Flying these days means accepting that airlines now exist for investors, not for me. And that I am never going to be flying enough again to reach top-tier elite levels.  In recognition of the changes, I am slowly releasing my grip on forty-plus years of travel routines in favor of an eclectic array of disparate opportunities.

For starters, I’ve been educating myself on modified airline practices afoot or already in place.  I pay close attention to my friend and mentor, Joe Brancatelli, publisher of the Joesentme business newsletter and The Brancatelli File.  Joe has been beating the drum for several years for us to awaken to the harsh new world of airline indifference. 

In column after column, Joe has cataloged the manifold failures of commercial aviation to treat customers with dignity and respect.  Airlines have consistently trivialized the customer experience despite having been bailed out time and again since 9/11, the latest giveaway being $54 billion in Covid relief meant to preserve airline employee jobs.  This summer’s ongoing air service fiascos exploded that fantasy. 

Yet the carriers are never held to account because there were no strings attached.  Taxpayers poured those billions straight into Wall Street investors’ pockets.  Airlines have long since morphed from customer-focused to investor-focused.  They don’t care about us because they don’t have to.

Here’s a YouTube 2021 treatise I thought worthwhile called “How Airlines Quietly Became Banks.” 

And here is an illuminating comment made to last week’s post on my quest to find airport lounges, with thanks to Deresky Martin:

“Like many of us living our lives in the reflection of our historical allegiances and contributions, you too have missed the message that our pension funds, IRA managers, Investment Advisors, and such have been delivering to all companies: It matters not what you did in the past; but only what you are going to do in the future. Your millions of miles mean nothing to Delta or to its shareholders.

“In fact, it’s a liability for them that they would like to sell if they could find someone to pay them something, anything to remove that implied obligation. It only matters as to whether you are spending large amounts of money with them AND are likely to continue to do so. My guess is that your travel expenditure is less that $100K p.a., and, as such, you do not rank with the community that is going to make a material difference to their bottom line.

“Thus, the obligation of indefinite stay Lounges and their perquisites is another way that airlines can make cuts that are going to improve their bottom lines. Having paid for, used, and lost my Concierge Status at American over the last 5 years, I too feel the loss, but my connections with Wall St make their policies in this regard both logical and sensible. I do not like it any more than you, but the world has changed, and, in many ways, we asked for this.”

I believe Mr. Martin states the truth.

So here are some of my new simplified travel rules:

Credit Cards

I played the frequent flyer bonus game for decades, accepting one bank, airline, or Amex offer after another and always hitting the jackpot on miles or points.  In the background, however, the carriers and card issuers were playing a vicious multi-variant depreciation game with the ever-diminishing value of points for award tickets.  Just like Las Vegas, the player always loses. 

These days I carry the Amex Platinum Card and a Capital One Venture Visa.  Though the American Express Platinum has become annoyingly expensive, it still packs in a lot of travel value that I use, including club access.  See my post last week, for example.  Amex also reimburses me for the cost of keeping up my TSA Pre and Global Entry memberships.

The Capital One Venture Visa gives me many ways to use my points and is comparatively generous in point accumulation.  I used the card recently to pay $1400 in accommodation fees to South Africa National Parks, which prompted Capital One to offer to use points to pay my bill when it came.  It was super-easy.  I am also impressed with their travel booking site—also easy and clear.

Those two cards are all I need for travel, though I do keep a MasterCard, a Discover, and an extra Visa account active just in case.  All are no fee.

Club Access

Again, I cite my post last week for examples.  I no longer pay for any airline lounge because it’s no longer worth it.

Loyalty & Elite Programs

As Mr. Martin so rightly pointed out above, “lifetime” this or that, multi-million miler status, and so on is mostly vaporware in today’s flying world.  Loyalty to any airline is now one-way, benefiting the carrier, not me.  I certainly no longer try to attain the levels now required for airline elite status, which are mainly based on spending. 

Really, it’s only the very top elite level that’s worth anything—and sometimes not worth much.  For several years before AA added new super tiers, I was an American Airlines Executive Platinum, and yet I could never count on domestic first-class upgrades more than half the time.  Platinum and Gold never got upgraded.  Once in Charlotte, an AA agent told me that he had nearly twenty Executive Platinums awaiting upgrades ahead of me for one empty first-class seat CLT/RDU.

However, there are a few benefits that make even Silver or Gold elite level worth hanging onto.  I’m talking about free seat selection, access to better seats, free bag check, and “early” boarding. 

I put “early” in quotes because even a Platinum, depending upon the airline, is now number five or six in the boarding queue.  So “early” really means “before the hordes who paid only for basic economy.”  And that’s still good because I need to get on board and find a place for my carry-on while overhead space is still available.

In summary, I parse and exploit the lifetime elite benefits that work, such as the ones I mentioned: priority boarding, free checked luggage, free seat selection, sometimes matching benefits for accompanying travelers on the same record, and the general goodwill that now and then comes from being recognized as, say, a five million miler on Delta.  That doesn’t get me a free drink, though.

Upgrades

I’ve learned to forget about upgrades because I never get one anymore.  I am no longer the tippy-top tier elite of any airline.  Instead, if I want to sit up front, I just buy a first or business-class seat.

I started employing that strategy years ago with Qatar, Emirates, and others not affiliated with one of the big three frequent flyer schemes.  On Southwest, I pay extra to board as early as I can to get a seat I like.  On JetBlue, I don’t mind paying extra for better seats, too.

Shopping for the least expensive premium seats in a market (first when flying domestic, business when flying overseas) makes me immune to loyalty.  Last year and early in 2022, for example, I bought three round trips in business class on United to South Africa that were less expensive than Delta’s Premium Economy in the same market.  United provided despicable service on all three itineraries, but I did ride in Polaris Class and saved many thousands of dollars.

Rental Cars

Before Covid, the rental car companies were poorly managed.  Since Covid, I can’t find a car domestically for under $100/day, plus, plus.  I often look for discounts through the Costco travel site, which can yield surprising savings.  Sometimes, I use Uber, or I try local rental car companies that will come pick me up at the airport and drop me off when I leave.  

But these days cars are outrageously expensive, and I have no strategy that routinely works. Rental cars are a black hole until automobile shortages abate.

Hotels

The accommodation industry is also focused on investors with no care for guests.  I shop for the cheapest place that looks clean and safe on third-party booking sites, then compare the prices on the hotel chain’s proprietary site.  I go with whichever is the least expensive.  Like airlines, gone are the days when I was loyal to Hyatt, Hilton, or Marriott.

I don’t miss the old competitive days of frenetic frequent flyer “mileage runs” at the end of each year to guarantee a better elite level for the coming one.  Travel planning has always been complex and full of uncertainties.  For me, the best new strategy is the peace of mind of buying a better seat instead of fretting about possible upgrades.  The new ways are simpler, and my stress levels are far lower.

A lounge, a lounge, my kingdom for an airport lounge!

June 28, 2022

Why is it that I can no longer count on airport lounge access when I need it most? I admit it is not as weighty a question as Shakespeare posed for his Royal Majesty Richard III regarding his kingdom for a horse in the heat of battle, but it does give me pause in my 62nd year of flying.

After all, since I began weekly flying on business in the 1970s, I’ve been a member of one or more airline or airport lounges.  It made sense.  Sudden cancellations and long delays have always been a dreary part of commercial aviation, so it didn’t take me long being on the road to realize the value of having a private place to wait out the misery of such events. 

Over the decades I paid and paid for access to the Eastern Airlines Ionosphere Club (to which I was a lifetime member—I thought it was for MY lifetime, not Eastern’s), the TWA Ambassador Club, the United Red Carpet Lounge, and the American Airlines Admirals Club.  I don’t regret a penny of the expense.  It was money well spent. 

Sometime in the early 1980s Delta made me a Flying Colonel, which gave me access to then invitation-only Delta Crown Rooms.  Now I am a 5.5 million miler in the Delta SkyMiles scheme of things, which makes me a Lifetime Platinum.  But neither that nor my old Flying Colonel status cuts any ice with Delta when I turn up at a Delta Sky Club.  For entry, Delta only cares about my American Express Platinum Card and day-of-travel boarding pass.

That’s been just fine when flights were on time and connections reasonably short.  Delta’s 2022 chaos, however, has meant a flurry of schedule changes, including an itinerary in late August to Ljubljana, Slovenia for me and my wife.  We are connecting on Air France (Delta codeshare) through JFK to Paris CDG, and the AF flight leaves at 7:30 PM.  Then Delta canceled our afternoon flight RDU/JFK that would have made a three-hour connection and rebooked us on an RDU/JFK flight that arrives in New York at 11:30 AM.  That’s an eight-hour connection.

We will be on vacation, so my immediate reaction was that we will just pass the time in the Delta Sky Club.  Delta’s recent access limitation of three hours, though, is a bit unclear.  It says: “Beginning June 1, 2022, guests will be able to access Delta Sky Clubs anytime within 3 hours of their scheduled departure time (and connecting customers can continue to access Clubs at any time prior to departure).”  I figured that meant that even an eight-hour connection will qualify for entry.  A call into Delta clarified that, yes, access is assured no matter how long the connection—a big relief.

That got me thinking, however.  How long before that rule changes, too?  If connecting passengers are likewise restricted, what then?  Would we, in this case, have had to wait until 4:30 PM (three hours before our flight) to get in? 

Thinking through alternatives, as an Amex Platinum Card holder, my wife and I could use either one of the Priority Pass Clubs in JFK Terminal One or the American Express Centurion Lounge there.  But checking my Priority Pass app for allowed lounges gave me pause, as did the Centurion Lounge rules:

  • Air France Lounge – open 0945-2230 daily, but access “may be restricted” 1330-2200 due to space constraints.  Also restricted to a “maximum 3-hour stay.”  Maybe we could stay for three hours and move on—unless it was too crowded to begin with.
  • Korean Air Lounge – open only 0830-1200 daily.  Wouldn’t meet our needs for an eight-hour wait from 11:30 AM until 7:30 PM.
  • Lufthansa Business Lounge – open 0930-2245 daily, which would work, but, again, only for a “maximum 3-hour stay.”  Maybe, like the AF lounge, we could stay for three hours and move on, like gypsies.
  • Primeclass Lounge – open 0930 until 2330 or 0100 daily, but only for a “maximum 4-hour stay” and “may be restricted due to lounge capacity constraints.” 
  • Amex Centurion Lounge – open 1130 until 2030, which is perfect for us, but reading on, I see that admittance is only “within 3 hours of the departure time stated on your same-day, confirmed boarding pass.”  I’ve been to this lounge, and it’s high-class and super fancy.  But not to be enjoyed for more than three hours.

Truth is, who wants to spend even three hours in an airport lounge?  Elegant or not, I certainly don’t yearn to.  But there will be days when weather delays, ATC slip-ups, airline operation blunders, long layovers, or other complications force us to seek cover in a cloistered and insensitive airport somewhere on the planet.  I prefer to know my options before getting to the airport, yet widely varying restrictions on lounge entry make for uncertain strategies.

South African domestic airlines

June 21, 2022

Welcome to the first day of summer—and ceaseless domestic flying horrors!  I’m averting my gaze from the cascading cancellations here in the U.S. to look way south at what’s happening to domestic flying in South Africa, a place I often visit and have since 1991.

When I first worked and lived in South Africa in 1991, South African Airways (SAA) was healthy and solvent.  The carrier dominated domestic routes in South Africa as well as long-haul international (Europe, USA, etc.) and short- to medium-haul inter-African routes, such as to Harare, Zimbabwe, and to Windhoek, Namibia.  A few small carriers, like then-tiny Comair, nipped at SAA’s heel on thin domestic routes like Johannesburg to Skukuza (Kruger National Park), but SAA clearly had the competitive advantage on lucrative routes like Johannesburg-Cape Town.

Over the thirty-plus years since, SAA has collapsed several times due mainly to corrupt and shoddy management.  It’s now being liquidated and supposedly revived again as strictly an international carrier.  It has been brought back from the dead so many times that I call SAA the Alitalia of the Southern Hemisphere. 

SAA’s domestic routes are long gone, including those operated by a subsidiary called SA Express—also now in liquidation. 

In recent years the aforementioned Comair expanded to operate both a domestic airline in British Airways livery and a low-cost domestic carrier named Kulula.  The BA and Kulula flights dominated the main South African city-pairs the way SAA used to.  Recently, though, Comair’s two brands also sank out of sight and are now being liquidated, with little hope for the ticketholders to be reimbursed (at the back of the creditor line, as usual). 

Naturally, South Africans, as well as foreign tourists, have a keen desire to fly between cities now that the pandemic has (mostly) abated.  The demise of SAA, SA Express, and the Comair duo has left a void of opportunities for new or existing airlines to fill.  That seems to be happening.  Although details about some SA airline fares, policies, and conditions are hard to ascertain, here’s what I know so far:

First, although I could not verify it except inferentially, domestic air routes in South Africa are granted only to airlines that can prove 75% or higher local ownership. The ones listed below meet that test.  Wikipedia lists South African airlines, but some are primarily charter or very small niche players. 

LIFT is the newest carrier and describes itself as SA’s most flexible airline.  The carrier operates three A220s strictly Johannesburg-Cape Town (JNB/CPT) with five round trips seven days a week from 700am until 700pm.  Reminds me of the old Eastern Airlines Shuttle Washington-NYC, except with far fewer flights.

After trolling the website, I conclude that LIFT offers three fare levels based on checked and carry-on luggage (none to two) and a few small perks.  Doesn’t allow any carry-on over 7 kg (16 pounds), so essentially tourists with their inevitable luggage would have to opt for the higher fare level.

The lowest one-way fare JNB/CPT with one checked bag is around $62.50, and with two checked bags and extra legroom about $190.

LIFT was established in late 2020 and commenced operations in December. The name was selected by the public following the hoopla of a social media campaign.  The carrier is a joint venture between former Kulula CEO Gidon Novick, a former Uber executive, and aircraft leasing company Global Airways.  Since Kulula is in liquidation, I can’t help but wonder about LIFT’s future with the Kulula former CEO at the helm.

Further information here and here.

Fly Safair operates a fleet of 22 737s, with more on order. FlySafair offers food and drinks for sale on board. It was the first airline in South Africa to offer credit card payments aboard flights.

Fly Safair seems to fly to 8 domestic airports, but, maddeningly, their website returns multiple “undefined errors” which then show blank screens for flight and fare searches, making it impossible to determine what the fare levels and conditions are.  For JNB/CPT, Google Flight search shows $147 to $162 one-way fares on Fly Safair but doesn’t show restrictions on carry-on, checked luggage, etc.

This carrier seems to have the heft to meet a lot of domestic demand.  Further information here and here.

CemAir is another domestic option, a small airline.  See here and here.

However, it may have a checkered safety record for airworthiness (see the Wikipedia article). 

Their website shows service to 12 mostly small domestic markets, apparently with turboprops.  Many of its aircraft are in use all over Africa, so hard to tell for sure.  Fares look very reasonable, such as one-way JNB to Hoedspruit for about $101.  CemAir appears to be a small niche airline.

Airlink is the current domestic airline champion in my eyes.  Certainly, it is the one I am most familiar with, as I’ve used the airline often between Johannesburg, Skukuza (SZK, in the Kruger National Park), and Mpumalanga International Airport (MQP), and Cape Town (CPT). 

My flights have been universally good on Airlink over decades.  Fares are reasonable, service reliable, safe, friendly, and efficient.  On-board complimentary service is remarkable.  For short flights, like the 50 minutes from Jo’burg to Skukuza, a beverage and sandwich or snack are offered, including beer and wine. 

Most Airlink planes are Embraer (models 135, 140, 170, and 190) with 1-2 seating.  Here’s how the Wikipedia article describes Airlink history, which is accurate from my own long experience:

  • An airline based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Its main business is to provide services between smaller, under-served towns and larger hub airports.
  • It has since expanded to offer flights on larger, mainline routes. The airline has an ever-expanding network of over 60 routes across 50+ destinations.
  • In January 2021, it became the second-largest carrier in Africa by the number of flights, and third-largest by the number of seats.
  • In 1995, SA Airlink officially launched at a gathering of important guests, including Queen Elizabeth II. Later that year, the airline aligned its branding with that of South African Airways.
  • In 1997, SA Airlink further strengthened its partnership with South African Airways and joined both SAA and South African Express in a strategic alliance. This alliance and partnership created the biggest airline network in Africa. The alliance was governed by a franchise agreement, which saw SA Airlink adopt the “South African” brand identity and become South African Airlink.
  • In 2006, South African Airlink exited the strategic alliance with South African Airways and entered into a franchise agreement, dropping the “South African” branding from their name, but retaining a similar color scheme. SA Airlink introduced its unique Sunbird logo as part of the new branding.
  • In February 2008, SA Airlink successfully completed the IATA Operational Safety Audit (IOSA) and was placed on the IATA registry with code “4Z”.
  • In 2020, SA Airlink changed its name from SA Airlink to Airlink. The change was made to distinguish the company as an independent airline.
  • Airlink ended its 23-year-old franchise agreement with South African Airways in the early part of 2020. It has been operating and issuing tickets under its own 4Z ticket stock instead of South African Airways’ SA code since then, and signed its own interline agreements with six other carriers.
  • In late 2020, Airlink unveiled a new livery, dropping any similarities to the South African Airways brand and incorporating the Sunbird logo set against sunrise colors as the main focal point of the new tail insignia.
  • In January 2021, Airlink became the third-largest carrier within Africa by the number of seats offered and second-largest by the number of flights scheduled. This is mainly due to Airlink’s use of lower-capacity aircraft and the opening up of new markets due to the decline of South African Airways.

Back to me.  The Airlink website has evolved to an efficiency that puts many U.S. airlines to shame.  It is easy to use, with transparent fares and rules.  I used to have to go through a travel agent to book Airlink, but for several years I’ve booked myself and others with ease and confidence.  Airlink accepts all major credit cards.

Airlink seat assignment is easy and free, too.  The carrier has reasonable and comprehensible carry-on and checked baggage policies.  I’ve taken many, many people to the Kruger National Park via Airlink flights JNB/SZK, and the airline has never once charged for the excess luggage many have carried with them.

Airlink is by far my favorite domestic SA carrier for all those reasons.  If we had an Airlink analog in the United States, I’d be flying it routinely for its low fares, efficient operation, courtesy, great service from check-in through deplaning, and for their simple, few rules.  If you’re old enough to remember Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) on the West Coast, that’s what Airlink is like. If you get to South Africa, I recommend booking Airlink if it goes where you need to fly internally.

You Ain’t Going Nowhere

June 6, 2022

Way back in 1967 when Bob Dylan was nursing himself back to health after a motorcycle accident, he wrote the famous song titled above. Thanks to the sky-high cost of everything travel this summer, I’ve concluded that Dylan is right: I ain’t going nowhere.

No trips to Montana as we usually do every summer: RDU/BIL fares in late July are $1018-1633 and in late August $614-901.

No trips to New Orleans: July flights are $606.  My friends who live there are pining for our company, and we theirs.

No trips to SEA: $766-1273 in late July.  One of my oldest and best friends has invited us to visit repeatedly. Thank goodness she is flying to North Carolina in August for a week at the beach instead.

I thought maybe my wife and I could take the train to New York for a weekend.  Until I discovered that Manhattan hotels are out of sight.  Ugh!

(“You Ain’t Going Nowhere!”)

Well, we are going to Slovenia and Croatia in September for two weeks, flying Delta codeshare (Air France flights) in premium economy, tickets I bought at what seems now like bargain-basement fare levels: $1609 per person.  I had to scrounge for that fare and lucked out because it was a codeshare.  Looking at flying Delta mainline to Paris, then Air France to Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport (LJU) was considerably more for nearly the same schedules. 

But the Delta website would not sell me that fare.  It balked each time I tried to complete the purchase.  I took a screen print of the details and called a Delta agent.  Even she had difficulty issuing the ticket but got it done.

The $1609 fare sounds good until I compare it to what I paid on United in premium economy for Raleigh-Newark-Johannesburg with an open jaw return Cape Town-Newark-Raleigh in February-March, 2023: $1690. This means that for $81 more than flying 4,629 miles to Slovenia I can fly 8,138 miles to South Africa. Both itineraries are in comfortable Premium Economy cabins. Doesn’t make sense to me.

So the flights RDU/LJU were “cheap” (sort of), but the Hertz rental car at Ljubljana, a minuscule NW Polo, is $100/day, and I was lucky to get it.  Avis and Budget were sold out except for a “luxury” car that wasn’t really luxurious for over $200/day.  No-name brands also sold out.

Not that all fares this summer are outrageous.  I found RDU/Roatán (Honduras) for under $600 almost any day for months and Belize City for not much over $600.  San Jose, Costa Rica can be reached many days this late summer and early fall for as little as $370.  Go figure out why the demand for those great places is low.  I am not going to those countries right now, either, but I looked out of curiosity to compare airfares.

Another surprise was discovering Raleigh to Malta, a place steeped in history I’ve always been curious about, for $1088 during the summer months.  But, like Central America, I don’t want to go there this summer.  Why can I fly 4,973 miles (if it was direct) to Malta for less than it costs to fly 2,060 miles to Billings, Montana?

I can’t get it out of my head: “You Ain’t Going Nowhere!”

Oddly, Dylan wasn’t the first to record his own song.  I can still hear the Byrds crooning “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on my favorite of their albums, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, in 1968.  You can listen to it and sing along with the lyrics:

  • Clouds so swift
  • Rain won’t lift
  • Gate won’t close
  • Railings froze
  • Get your mind off wintertime
  • You ain’t goin’ nowhere
  • Whoo-ee! Ride me high
  • Tomorrow’s the day
  • My bride’s gonna come
  • Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
  • Down in the easy chair!
  • I don’t care
  • How many letters they sent
  • Morning came and morning went
  • Pick up your money
  • And pack up your tent
  • You ain’t goin’ nowhere
  • Whoo-ee! Ride me high
  • Tomorrow’s the day
  • My bride’s gonna come
  • Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
  • Down in the easy chair!
  • Buy me a flute
  • And a gun that shoots
  • Tailgates and substitutes
  • Strap yourself
  • To the tree with roots
  • You ain’t goin’ nowhere
  • Whoo-ee! Ride me high
  • Tomorrow’s the day
  • My bride’s gonna come
  • Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
  • Down in the easy chair!
  • Genghis Khan
  • He could not keep
  • All his kings
  • Supplied with sleep
  • We’ll climb that hill no matter how steep
  • When we get up to it
  • Whoo-ee! Ride me high
  • Tomorrow’s the day
  • My bride’s gonna come
  • Oh, oh, are we gonna fly
  • Down in the easy chair!
  • You ain’t going nowhere!

I think it’s time to dust off that Byrds CD and give it a listen.  I’ve got plenty of time this summer because, you know, I’m not going anywhere.

What will business travel look like now?

May 16, 2022

A month ago I humorously mused about more apt descriptors to label airline international “business class” cabins in light of the ongoing sea change in travel patterns.  Since then I’ve been watching, trying to discern a focused trend, as I mulled how this metamorphosis might shape business travel for frequent flyers like me in more ways than just the name of seats up front.  I keep wondering, What will business travel look like now?

It’s not like I haven’t lived through big travel upheavals before. Though long ago now, I vividly recall the “Reagan Recession” of 1981-82. I was a young consultant flying all over the country for clients when suddenly I was sitting at home for months, unemployed because consultants are an easy cost to cut.  But when I hit the road again, nothing much had changed in the business travel bubble.

That era was the dawn of frequent flyer programs, too.  American Airline’s AAdvantage program launched on May 1, 1981.  I still have my original flimsy 1981 AAdvantage card.

Then came the stock market crash of 1987, which I weathered well (I was never out of work for a moment).  I seem to recall that airlines cut a lot of service for that one, and frequencies were slow to return, which made for tight flight reservations and a bump in fares.  Plenty of reasonable hotel rooms and rental cars, though. 

I barely felt the recession of 1990-91 despite reading at the time, I think, how airlines were redefining their business travel.  I don’t believe my flying experience altered much through the 90s. Airline credit cards came into their own in that decade.

However, 9/11/01 ushered in a transformation in business travel.  Elite levels among frequent flyer programs were honed to incent and reward high mileage business travelers above all others.  I vividly recall how cutthroat and competitive flying became after 9/11. The fun of flying was gone.  Fares seemed to skyrocket, and it became hard to get a bump up to first class on domestic flights solely on the basis of elite level.  Hotel nightly charges and car rental rates shot up.

The Great Recession of 2007-2009 accelerated the devolution in business travel for high-frequency flyers. One day I realized that if I wanted a seat up front that I would need to start paying for it because the airline points programs no longer guaranteed an upgrade even for the highest elite levels.  And service, already suffering, got much worse: meals in coach—and often in first—eliminated; no drinks other than water in the back became the norm, and cutbacks in the sharp end, too.  Perks were shorn from airline, hotel, and rental car top customers faster than wool from a sheep at an Irish county fair.

The years from 2009 through 2019 saw the airline industry go from deficit to riches and from making money putting butts in seats to making much more money pushing phony points through credit card tie-ins.  It felt to me like airlines merely paid lip service to their business customers, placating eroding customer satisfaction levels with slick marketing claims of rich and wonderful benefits. 

But there was no “there” there in most domestic service offerings, though—thanks to competition—real improvements did slowly come to international business and premium economy cabins.  The cherry on top of the comprehensive devaluation of airline service to business travelers was the complete overhaul of the major airline points programs, which institutionalized and made permanent the massive value erosion that had been quietly happening since 9/11.

Then Covid hit in 2020 for two long years, followed now by the Ukrainian invasion-caused inflation shock of 2022.  The devastation of airline service accompanied the general misery, as we all know, and business travel collapsed entirely for a long while.

So what is business travel becoming? Despite data points indicating business travel is likely to remain in decline, I haven’t yet concluded a permanent lower set point.  Dominating my thinking on this issue are:

  1. What appears to be a permanent shift to more work from home;
  2. The potential for long-term oil supply problems, resulting in ever-rising jet fuel prices;
  3. Steep inflation in all sectors of the economy, which will show up in higher airfares equally as much as jet fuel costs impact airfares;
  4. Chronic shortages and higher costs in all airline functional operations, including cockpit and cabin crews;
  5. Marked declines in hotel industry services and standards, accompanied simultaneously by huge rate surges; and
  6. Prolonged car rental inventory shortages, again accompanied by spiraling rates.

In short, it’s a vicious and ugly cycle of misery we are living through, and I can’t see the end.  If airline past practices portend our future—and I’ll stick to projections of the airline industry—then we business travelers can expect more cuts in service, such as:

  • Fewer first class seats as more economy seats are added to accommodate more leisure customers.
  • No first class seats on smaller aircraft, though on some carriers or planes the British Airways practice of leaving a middle seat open in the first few rows of economy may be designated “premium” service.
  • Declines in seat pitch in every class; expect Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit types of discomfort in coach.
  • More and narrower seats across the hull in coach, and possibly even in first class domestic (such as 2-3 replacing today’s 2-2 configurations).
  • Further declines in food and beverage offerings in whatever premium cabins remain, probably culminating in the total elimination of service on some flights and aircraft.
  • Fewer and fewer perks for even the highest elite levels; elite levels become moot when the customer focus is on the leisure traveler.  Over time I see the elimination of the lowest elite levels as they become meaningless and eventually even of the highest elite levels.
  • Higher and higher award travel point thresholds; possible elimination of award travel at all for premium classes, restricting “free” seats to coach.
  • Charging even top elite customers for seat assignments, no matter the fare or class level.
  • Charging even top elite customers for checked luggage, though possibly discounted when compared to what non-elite customers pay.
  • Fewer city-pair frequencies in general.
  • Higher fares in all classes, but especially in premium classes.  That’s exactly what Delta is already doing internationally in many markets to both premium economy and business class fares.
  • Dynamic, permanent, and often outrageous “fuel surcharges” indexed to jet fuel market price fluctuations at origin and destination.
  • More restrictions on airline club entrances; charging for food and beverage in clubs, regardless of elite or fare levels; higher annual club fees; permanent closure of clubs in all but largest airports.
  • Few or no upgrade opportunities for elite flyers on account of fewer overall premium seats and the devaluing of elite customers in general.
  • Entirely automated check-in at counters and seat assignment and boarding at gates as airlines eliminate airport classes of employees; few or no upgrade or seat change opportunities will accompany the removal of employees; discretionary changes in flights, seats, upgrades, and so on will vanish.
  • Elimination of elite and general 800 lines—or any phone reservation services—in favor of fully automated online (software-driven) AI interactions when making or seeking to change reservations. Airlines will retire many thousands of employees currently engaged in such person-to-person services.
  • Travel agent fees will rise dramatically, as agents become the only experts who can deal with airlines, both through interpersonal and Internet capabilities not available to the public, not even to top elites (who will be systematically ignored or are going away, anyway). Travel agencies will be a growth business for the first time since the eighties, thanks to the airline industry’s drive to austerity and radical personnel eradication. Business travelers will flock back to travel agencies.

A grim picture overall, but many of these service changes are certainly coming, and perhaps soon.  I’m determined not to fret over it.  Instead, I plan to enjoy the best services I can while I can.  All I really want these days from an airline is safe transportation in reasonable comfort and relief from pain while trapped in their aluminum and carbon fiber tubes hurtling through the air.  As long as I can find a premium economy, domestic first class, or international business class seat going where I want to go at a price that won’t break my bank, then I will fly.

Lying to myself

May 9, 2022

I swore, in print, that I was done with United Airlines. And yet here I am again, booking on UA. As Joe Brancatelli has repeatedly said, this is why it never pays to swear off an airline. Too many factors.  In this case, one primary (money) and two secondary reasons (just me flying, and I don’t expect much from any Premium Economy cabin).

Last week I endured a five-hour double hernia surgery that I knew was going to knock me on my, er, keister.  Though outpatient and performed expertly using high-tech robotic devices and minimally invasive techniques, chronic post-op pain, slow recovery, and lack of mobility were predictable.  Thus I’d been planning my work and travel limitations around it for months, leaving a long restorative runway time to avoid things like lifting my carry-on bag into overhead compartments. I don’t even have domestic flights booked for the spring and early summer.

Before surgery, I feverishly worked to tie down two big trips (Europe and South Africa) to lock in airfares I could live with, and I managed to accomplish both. Business Class spaciousness seemed warranted to ensure against bodily discomfort after being cut.  However, the recent big airfare run-ups tied to spiraling oil prices nixed that possibility, leaving me instead to sift through Premium Economy fares that hadn’t quite caught up to the astronomical surges in sharp end seats.

At least, that’s what I hoped. After days of checking airline site after airline site (the best fares are almost always hiding at individual airline websites rather than showing on aggregator seller URLs), and by varying both city-pairs and travel dates this way and that, I finally found some acceptable (to me) pricing.  One (to Europe) I discovered on my own on an Air France codeshare with Delta, and the other (to South Africa) my amazing travel agent uncovered lurking at United.

Admittedly, I at first biased my searches away from American/British Airways and distant from United Airlines.  BA in Business (Club World) persists in offering nasty old seats in a cramped layout. Despicably, then British charges huge sums even for seat assignments up front, and certainly in Premium Economy.  It’s a far cry from the glory days of the Concorde, and I just can’t fly British Airways in any class these days.

Having endured three truly awful experiences on United in their supposedly vaunted Polaris Class to and from South Africa in the last twelve months had me cursing UA, too.  That left me looking at Delta and its partners.  For a trip in August and September, I paid $1600 per person for my wife and me to fly RDU to Ljubljana, Slovenia on Air France (Delta domestic US) in Premium Economy for 12 days. Surprisingly to me, it was cheaper to fly direct to Ljubljana (LJU) than to, say, Frankfurt and then take the train.

I suspect the codeshare fares to LJU in the Delta system were slow to update because I could not get the tickets to issue online and, after three tries, had to call a Delta agent to do it for me.  Even she had trouble; the process took fifty minutes. My precautionary screenshots of the fare basis and itinerary details from delta.com cinched the deal.

Looking for business or premium economy (PE) seats to Johannesburg next February and March was far harder.  After checking most carriers serving JNB, including Kenya Airways, Qatar, Emirates, Turkish, and Ethiopian, I was about to give up.  Fares up front were $5500 and way higher; PE on carriers that offered the service was nosing above $3000.

Then Steve Crandall, owner of Discount Travel in Jacksonville, dangled $1700 at me for Premium Economy in Feb-Mar 2023 to Johannesburg, with a return from Cape Town so I can spend three days and nights in Cape Town after nine nights in the Kruger National Park. But that price was available only on UA. Gulping hard, I booked United because it was half what Delta was charging for RDU/JNB alone.

Yes, United. Because the savings tops my hatred of the airline and because it’s just me flying. I don’t have to worry about UA screwing my friends or family when it’s just me, and that was a big factor in my decision.

Business Class on United was $4312, a factor of 2.5× the PE fare—too much for me to justify, even if far less than the $7500 Delta wanted or similar figures on other airlines.

For reasons I can’t explain, UA fares have recently been far lower than any other airline to South Africa, not just lower than Delta’s.  $1694 (UA PE) versus $3440 (DL PE) was a no-brainer. Especially since United’s $1694 fare is for an open jaw: RDU to JNB, with the return from CPT. Delta’s fare is more than double and only to JNB and back.

United can’t disappoint me as much in PE, either, because literally all they offer is the seat, and Delta in PE doesn’t do much, if any, better. It’s just the seat, not the service. Thus, my expectations are extremely low compared to Business Class on either carrier. Or, for that matter, on any carrier.

So, yes, I lied to myself about United.  I’d rather go than stay home, and for such a comparatively low fare, I will fly United again.  Well, at least I will this time.

Travel planning is a waste of time

April 27, 2022

Way back in 2018 Joe Brancatelli wrote a brilliant column called “Travel is a waste of time” listing many of the time-killing hoops we have to jump through to fly anywhere. It made me laugh, but also hit me hard in the solar plexus because it was so true.  I remember thinking, How could it get any worse?

In hindsight I was naïve. That was a full two years before the madness of chaotic Covid travel requirements (tests, tests, and more tests, not to mention vaccine documents, travel insurance to cover possible quarantining, mask misery, etc.).  All that rigmarole added time and more money required to get tested, convert results to digital formats to be uploaded, and submit the docs electronically to the airlines.  When the airline software hiccupped, as often happened, more time was wasted.  Hell, there was hardly any time left on a trip to get work done or to have fun.  Assuming we were allowed to travel at all, of course.

Now airfares are skyrocketing due to the soaring cost of oil, goods, and services.  Crippling inflation caused by Putin’s Ukraine folly has made travel planning a dog’s breakfast.  Reasonable airfares (I define “reasonable” as fares comparable to what I paid in 2019 for the same or similar city pairs) have vanished for flights this summer, fall, and even 330 days out (the max in the future that airfares drop).  I can’t find anything resembling a bargain compared to pre-Covid fares to Montana, Minnesota, Seattle, Slovenia, or South Africa.  I’ve spent hours researching fares and routes without success so far.

Forget about the travails of travel itself.  Just the advance travel planning has become a tortuous, dreary waste of time.

For instance, Delta’s Premium Economy (called Premium Select) RDU/JNB for travel in Feb-Mar, 2020 was $2380 round trip when I booked in mid-2019 but is now $3413 for flights in Feb-Mar, 2023—a 43% increase. 

Thirty-four hundred dollars for Premium Economy is close to what some Business Class fares were in 2019 for the same route.  Comparing Delta’s 2022 RDU/JNB PE fare of $3413 to last year’s United PE fare of $1702, that’s 100% more than United was charging in 2021.

Google Flights has become my barometer for gauging fares.  It’s a good tool, especially in its calendar mode showing fares in the class selected for every day within a month.  Not perfect because some carriers are either not shown (e.g., Qatar, Emirates) or can be elusive (e.g., Kenya Airways).  Also, Google Flights doesn’t show specials that airlines like KLM reveal only when searching on their proprietary sites.  But still, Google Flights shows trends if you watch it often enough.

For example, I have been keeping daily track of business and premium economy fares RDU/JNB for Feb-Mar, 2023.  The lowest business fares had been hovering just under $4,000 for a week or so. On Friday of last week, I noticed that most carriers had suddenly raised fares to $4400-5000 in that market for far-off dates in February and March next year.  Only AA/BA fares were still under four grand at $3950 round trip.  No fan of British Airways, I nonetheless booked those flights and held them for 3 days as a hedge.  Sure enough, yesterday AA and BA raised the RDU/JNB fare in business to $4800 for the dates I wanted, a 20% one-day increase.

Midnight Monday night was my deadline for getting the $3950 fare, and in a moment of frenzied foolishness, I had it issued.  Tuesday morning I visited the American and BA travel portals to grab seats and realized that three of the four overseas legs were operated by British Airways (LHR/JNB, JNB/LHR, and LHR/JFK).  While AA allows me to freely choose seats in business class, BA wanted $130-180 per seat assignment, which would add nearly $500 to my fare. 

Damned greedy British Airways.  I could barely justify paying $3950, and I’m sure not forking over another $500 to BA just for seat assignments which cost the airline nothing, especially not in business class.  I am still within 24 hours of the ticket issuance, so I had the sale voided, and I will get a full refund.

Still, that leaves me with no itineraries to any of those places I plan to go, and I’ve so far invested scores of hours of research looking for reasonable fares to Montana, Minnesota, Seattle, Slovenia, and South Africa. Compounding my problem, without the air itineraries locked down, no way I can book the rest of the trip details: hotels, car rentals, connecting flights in South Africa to my destination beyond Johannesburg (Skukuza), train travel within Europe, and so on. 

Travel planning used to be fun.  Finding good fares, booking hotel bargains, and suddenly discovering free car rental upgrades made the anticipation of the trip itself all the more exciting.  Now, though, I dread putting together itineraries.  None is simple or straightforward anymore.  Every plan has become a minefield of uncertainty and hidden costs.  The joy of journey anticipation has deteriorated into relief that the pieces are finally in place at best and, at worst, a source of intense stress and worry due to the cost and trouble of planning.

Joe Brancatelli’s 2018 maxim that “travel is a waste of time” is truer than ever and now encompasses the entire planning process.

What’s in a name?

April 12, 2022

If the past two pandemic years have taught us anything, it is that we don’t have to fly all over hell’s half-acre to get stuff done, and done well.  Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams, and the like have made working from home productive.  The result of which, I think, is a new norm: fewer people traveling by air on business than previously.

So I’ve begun to wonder if the descriptive term for the international pointy end flying cabin—“Business Class”—is now anachronistic.  Maybe not all at once, but like a slowly leaking tire, travel for business in what is now called Business Class will soon deflate.  Bygone, defunct, obsolete, dead: pick your word; it’s time to rename.

I live in Raleigh. It’s a thriving area of central North Carolina, part of the Research Triangle area that includes Durham and Chapel Hill.  Jobs galore are moving here, such as when Apple announced last year 6,000 new positions. And that’s just one example. We are blessed with prosperity and good quality of life.

High tech, high-quality office space abounds in these parts.  Yet my wife, a 20+ year white-collar employee, hasn’t worked in her office in the Research Triangle Park, a 20-minute commute in good traffic from Raleigh, since April 2020.  She conducts or participates in multiple large-group video meetings all day, every day, and she hasn’t missed a beat since the lockdown commenced.

Ditto for me.  In my role as a member of the Board of Trustees for the regional transit authority (GoTriangle) and in carrying out responsibilities for other civic and community organizations, I Zoom all the time. I never heard of Zoom before March of 2020.

For the seven years through 2019, I traveled on business annually to transit conferences and transit learning opportunities in Washington (several trips), Pittsburgh, Denver, Salt Lake City, Twin Cities (several trips), Dallas/Ft. Worth, San Francisco, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vienna—to name the ones I remember. 

During Covid, however, I instead attended eight conferences online and only one by air (to South Florida once).  Admittedly, I didn’t enjoy the virtual conferences nearly as much as being there in person, nor was I able to network with others face to face, but I’d be lying if I said the online events lacked value.  And participating from home sure saved the public sector organizations I represent a ton of travel dollars—that’s tax dollars not spent.

Coming out (we hope) of the Covid era, my wife and I have little need now to travel on business. Just like many Americans.  If we’ve all learned to make remote work effective, and if working partly from home becomes SOP, then I am convinced that a goodly number of everybody’s routine pre-pandemic business trips by air will decline.  If I’m right, then, like I said, the name “business” class becomes archaic. 

Certainly, too, the astonishing rise in oil prices will goose already frightfully steep international Business Class airfares to ever-higher levels, making business travel in Business Class even less an attractive option versus conducting business virtually.

If already low business travel demand sinks further, then I wonder who will be paying those astronomical fares to fly up front going overseas.  Affluent leisure travelers, I’m guessing. 

If so, then airlines will sooner or later come up with a new moniker for Business Class that accurately reflects the non-business customers occupying those comfy lie-flat seats.  Here are a few of my off-the-cuff renaming suggestions:

  • Top Class
  • Sharp End
  • Front Cabin
  • Elite Cabin
  • Premium Cabin
  • Exclusive Class
  • High Class
  • Finest Class
  • Suite Class
  • Exceptional Class
  • Gold Class
  • Platinum Class
  • Diamond Class
  • Special Class
  • Luxury Class
  • Best Class
  • Superior Class
  • Quality Class
  • Easy Class
  • Comfort Class
  • Rest Class
  • Escape Class
  • Relaxation Cabin
  • Indulgence Class
  • Resort Class
  • Leisure Class
  • Delight Cabin
  • Clipper Class (used by PanAm way back when)
  • Ambassador Class (tip of the hat to TWA’s Ambassador Clubs)

And a few more—perhaps too cheeky—ideas for renaming the forward cabin:

  • FU Class
  • Bite-Me Class
  • Conceit Cabin
  • Arrogance Cabin
  • Haughty Class
  • Snooty Class
  • Smug Class
  • Snub Class
  • Snob Class
  • Me-Proud Cabin
  • Limousine Cabin
  • Country Club Class
  • Lack-of-Humility Cabin
  • Far-Out Class
  • Not-Coach Cabin
  • Least-Worst Class

Kidding aside, my favorite new term for the international forward cabin is the old one: First Class.

Yeah, I know some airlines (e.g., Emirates, QANTAS, Singapore, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa) offer First Class on some routes now, but nothing prevents the carriers that offer only “Business” Class from renaming their product First Class. Delta is a step ahead of that game, already calling their front cabin Delta One, clearly inferring First Class.

What should we call it on other airlines now that business travel is ephemeral?

With thanks to readers for these suggestions:

Connoisseur Class – Used by United about 1990. Pan Am had trademarked it, so United had to buy it. (Corey Clinger)
Envoy Class – US Air. I always wondered if it was really Envy Class! (Corey Clinger)

A seat in Siberia

April 5, 2022

After 5.5 million miles on Delta over fifty years, I’ve learned to loathe seats in the rear of the coach cabin, and none do I fear more than center seats way back there.  That’s why I eschew the low fares marketed as “Basic Economy” on Delta and other carriers.  Yet last week I found myself sitting in the center seat of the last row of a 757: seat 45B, which is arguably the lousiest seat on the plane.  My worst nightmare realized, I nevertheless came away with a survival story about flying in the back of the bus.

When my wife flies by herself, she frequently buys Basic Economy fares.  This often works out okay flying Delta because even her lowly SkyMiles Silver elite status will usually reward her with a decent seat assignment, though not until the day she is traveling.  On four recent Delta segments, she was in two Comfort+ seats, one roomy exit row seat, and one seat two-thirds of the way back.  Three out of four were aisle seats, too.  That last one was a center seat.

Still, for her, the savings in buying Basic Economy outweigh the risk of a seat in Siberia. 

Unlike me.  Even with certain lifetime elite privileges (Platinum on Delta; Gold on American), I always stick with Main Cabin because I want the best seat I can get—aisle, if possible—and I want that seat to be close to the front so I can be off the plane quickly.  Especially important if I am connecting, but also nice when I get to my destination.  Since I never check bags, I can make haste when we land, bypassing the crapshoot of the luggage carousel (appropriately shaped like a roulette wheel).

But last Thursday, the last day of March, I was returning to Raleigh from Fort Lauderdale in the aftermath of a severe weather front that passed over the east and southeast.  Flights were disrupted everywhere with the usual cascading effect on planes and crews being out of sequence. 

I knew it would just get worse as the day went on. Connecting through Atlanta would double the odds of a disruption.  When I realized that I was going to get to FLL Airport by about 2:30 PM for my 5:12 PM flight to Atlanta, I thought maybe I should try to stand by for earlier flights.

On arrival at Fort Lauderdale Airport at 2:34 PM, I looked at the monitor and saw Delta had a 3:18 PM flight to ATL.  Not much time to get through security and to the gate, but it never hurts to ask.  The Delta elite line was short, and soon I was chatting with a counter agent with forty years at Delta.  She looked at my fare basis, my five+ million miles, and said she could indeed put me on standby for the 3:18 PM flight. 

But she couldn’t guarantee good seats, as the flight was full.  I had great Comfort+ aisle seats confirmed on my original flights FLL/ATL and ATL/RDU.  Though I hated to give up that comfort and security, I gulped hard and decided it was better to stand by than to possibly get stranded later.

I rushed through security and made it onto the 3:18 PM flight as a standby: window seat 43F on a 757.  Two rows from the back of the long plane.  I hadn’t been in a window seat in economy class in many years. 

My elite status at least allowed me to board with Main Cabin, which gave me a shot at overhead space for my bag.  Sure enough, I snagged one of the last empty bins, and it was just ahead of my row.

I figured the day’s stormy weather would keep the seat belt sign lit the entire 90 minutes from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta due to turbulence.  That meant we could expect no service and no going to the lav.  Therefore, I made a beeline for the toilet after stowing my bag.  It was convenient since I was near the back galley.  Later, I was glad I did.

Being in a window seat meant absolute control of the shade.  Another small consolation.  As I’ve moaned a number of times in my blog posts, window shades are often pushed down for entire flights on every row these days, as passengers now live on their phones.  I find it depressing to fly blind.

Apparently, the joy and magic of floating above the clouds like modern gods are absent from the emotional ranges of today’s travelers. Creatures typically with the attention span of goldfish, they’d rather watch inane 22-second TikTok videos of cute puppies, or obsess over Twitter, than reflect in awe of the earth’s magnificence from 33,000 feet.   

It was a bumpy flight for sure with no service at all for the ninety minutes FLL/ATL.  No surprise there.  My mind was already on the challenge of making the standby connection in Atlanta. 

FlightAware informed me that my flight would arrive at ATL gate E16 at 5:06 PM and that my connecting flight would depart from gate A19 at 5:46 PM.  Forty minutes isn’t a long time to connect between any flights in Atlanta, let alone the great distance between Concourses E and A.  Made worse when seated in row 43 just two rows from the back of a 757. 

We blocked in as predicted at 5:06 PM.  I was off the plane, finally, at 5:22 PM, sixteen minutes after arrival.  I hoofed it from gate 16 near the far end of the E concourse to escalators down to the “plane train” spine that connects the seven Atlanta concourses (T, A, B, C, D, E, F).

I stepped off the underground train at 5:36 PM, 14 minutes after leaving my inbound aircraft, and rushed to gate A19, thankfully near the top of the long escalator.  The ATL/RDU airplane was another 757 and was posted on time to depart at 5:46 PM.  All things considered, I was surprised I’d made it in time.

When I approached the gate agent at 5:41 PM—just five minutes before scheduled departure—she said she hadn’t yet cleared any standbys.  I concluded my chances weren’t too good. It appeared most folks had already boarded by then.  Oh well, I had my confirmed seat on the later flight, so I’d spend three hours in a Sky Club.

As I was musing, I heard my name being called in a loud shrill voice over the PA:

“ALLEN! Last call for boarding!  ALLEN!” 

I returned to the desk and asked if she meant me (lots of Allens in the world). 

“YES!  Please come on!  Hurry up!  But you’ll have to check your bag, as there’s no overhead space remaining!”  Her glance had me pegged as the village idiot who had never been to an airport, let alone on an airplane.  I didn’t mind; at least I was on the flight, and maybe I’d get lucky with an aisle seat.

I scanned my flimsy standby paper, by then crumpled and torn, and the gate printer coughed up seat 45B.  Last row center: the worst seat on the big plane.  

The gate agent put a tag on my bag and instructed me to leave it at the end of the Jetway.  I did as I was told and boarded.  Seat 45B was the sole empty seat, so far back I thought I had already walked halfway to Raleigh by the time I reached row 45. 

Once again figuring that the flight would be turbulent, I made a stop in the lav before taking my seat. The dreaded center seat. 

Nonetheless, I was surprised that I had plenty of legroom (I’m short) even if I had zilch for room on either side. No one was sitting behind me, of course, though I’m pretty sure I could hear the toilet flushing through the bulkhead wall. 

I settled in and took a deep breath. I think I might have mumbled a prayer for patience. The plane was already pushing back, a small benefit of boarding dead last.

The flight to RDU was just 50 minutes.  I got a small bottle of water and counted myself lucky.  My request for a Diet Coke was met with a look of disbelief as if I’d asked for Dom Perignon served in crystal.

On arrival at the RDU gate, it took those of us in the last row 20 minutes to get off.  By the time I reached the luggage belt, bags were being dumped, and I was soon out of there.

As folks in Minnesota are wont to say, “It wasn’t so bad!”  I got home three hours earlier than my confirmed itinerary, and time is all we have in life.  I was happy to stand by and grateful even for the worst seat on the Raleigh flight to gain those extra three hours.

Although, had I been upgraded to first class on my original booked flights, I might have hesitated to take those seats at the back. In which case, I would have missed this great adventure in sardine class.

Lufthansa Über United

March 29, 2022

On my third trip from Raleigh to South Africa since late July using United in business class, I reported on February 8th  how UA bungled my itinerary yet again.  In short, I had to scramble, with my travel agent’s great assistance, to reissue my return. I ended up on Lufthansa from Johannesburg to Frankfurt and there connected on United back to Newark.  Little did I realize that United’s screw-up would lead to a great experience on Lufthansa—far better than on United.  Here are my real-time notes as that rejiggered itinerary home unfolded, contrasting Lufthansa JNB/FRA with my connecting flight FRA/EWR on United:

JOHANNESBURG TO FRANKFURT ON LUFTHANSA

Great from start to finish on the Lufthansa 747-8 in business for 10.5 hours Johannesburg to Frankfurt. I was thrilled to fly in a 747 again because so few are still in service, and the 8 series is the newest. I’m afraid with oil prices soaring, thanks to Putin’s Ukranian misadventure, that airlines will choose to ground their four-engine planes, principally the now-scarce 747s and more numerous A380 double-deckers.

I was in seat 7K, a window. I didn’t think I’d like the double business seats, but I found the product perfect and plenty private.

Service began with pre-flight boarding Champagne, water, and OJ served in real glassware (no plastic).  Once airborne, a real honest-to-God printed menu was brought to us with quite a good selection of food and drink.

Then the drink cart came in the fine old style. After we had drinks and nuts, dinner options were selected, followed by a tray meal with entrees and later a separate service for dessert or a selection of cheeses, with after-dinner drinks if one chose. I stuck to the delicious Champagne and cold water, though I sampled their South African red out of curiosity (just above average).

Then slept for seven hours. The selection of movies was on par with United, which meant average. But the Lufthansa noise-canceling headphones were far superior to United’s. I noted the two-pronged plug on the LH phones was just like United’s, meaning one large and one small prong. Thus I had to put away my Bose phones once again since the Bose plugs do not fit, and Bose has no adapter.

90 minutes prior to landing, a filling breakfast was served with two choices, and the FAs were attentive for both dinner and breakfast, coming around often to ask if we wanted more or different. I felt they valued my business.

The captain left the seat belt sign off the entire flight once at cruise and never asked us to keep it fastened. Though Lufthansa makes a big deal of requiring KN95/N95 masks, no one enforced that rule that I observed. Everyone works masks, of course, just not all KN95/N95.

I was suffocating while trying to sleep and pulled my mask down below my nose. I wasn’t bothered about it by anyone.

Toilets were spotless. The cabin was spotless. In Lufthansa fashion, we pushed back dead on time and landed early.

Forgot to mention checking in at Lufthansa in Jo’burg. Their website seemed so strict and hard to comply with about Covid tests and vax cards, but they just took a quick look at the electronic Covid test results and printed my boarding passes. Took 5 minutes once the counters finally opened about 315p or 330p yesterday for the 740p departure last night.

I also should mention that the boarding process at Johannesburg for the large plane (which was full) was orderly and efficient. Very well-trained gate staff handled the many wheelchairs and children and others “who need extra time boarding” extremely politely and well, after which Groups 1 and 2 (First Class and Business Class) boarded promptly.

I wish I could fly Lufthansa in business on every flight.

CONNECTING IN FRANKFURT

In Frankfurt, I was impressed again by German efficiency and cleanliness in directing us to and through a very thorough security screening (it felt better than TSA).  Then walked to the Z gates for the United flights home.

En route, I was directed to stop at a queue where United reps checked my vax and covid test results and put a sticker on my FRA/EWR boarding pass.

I found the Lufthansa Senator business and first-class lounge by gate Z15 before returning to Z22 for my flight later.

The Senator Lounge required my vax card before entry, which I thought was wise. No vax card, no entry, regardless of nationality or how much the ticket cost.

However, the queue to get in was chronically backed up and quite slow (see photo below) because of vax card checking. Many would-be patrons are apparently unprepared and have to dig for it.

Excellent high-quality food and drink were on offer in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge, so I had breakfast of scrumptious scrambled eggs that a fine restaurant would envy. Also French patisserie-quality fresh croissants. So buttery and flaky that I could have eaten ten!

Bravo, Lufthansa and Frankfurt airport! Beat the pants off United Airlines.

Now on to Newark on my United.  Lufthansa has made this a great trip so far.

UNITED FROM FRANKFURT TO NEWARK

I’m booked on UA961 FRA/EWR scheduled for 1105am departure. However, the inbound aircraft is UA960 EWR/FRA and is late. I’m worried about my tight connection in EWR (self-connecting on Delta with a two-hour window). In case I don’t make it, I have backup rez on JetBlue on a later EWR/RDU flight.

Sure enough, the aircraft turnaround at Frankfurt was slow and chaotic.  Getting everyone off the plane alone took a long time. 

Boarding required walking down a long, steep stairwell; no ramp or moving sidewalk to the jetway.  I had two carry-on pieces, as always, since I don’t check luggage.  It was a struggle.

Entering the airplane I noticed the flight attendants were scurrying madly this way and that.  I was barely greeted, but I knew where my port-side window seat 9A was located and got my bags stowed,

Looks like I may miss my connection to Delta at Newark. The delay creeps on with no time estimate for pushback.

Several breathlessly screechy and rude announcements were soon made by the chief Flight Attendant on UA 961 FRA/EWR as boarding continued. She just declared a longer delay because, she said, in an exasperated voice, “I’ve just got too much going on!” She didn’t specify what.

She threatened several times that people could go to jail for not wearing their masks, including when eating and drinking, saying take a sip or a bite then promptly put masks back on. By contrast, the Lufthansa FA had made a similar announcement in a civil, businesslike, and respectful tone.

Then the FA announced 50% of the toilets are broken on this relatively new 787-10: only the port side lavs are working. I am glad my seat is on the port side. Half the toilets aren’t working? What does that say about United maintenance?

All the headsets in business were the old ones (dated 2019 on the headset) with two even-sized plugs that don’t work in the new Polaris headset outlets. The FAs have since found the newer ones (dated 2021) with two different size plugs for most people. Eventually, flight attendants came through slinging the cheap headsets with the correct plug sizes, but not collecting the old ones.

After the door finally closed, the captain announced another delay due to “still loading cargo” which is the same BS they attributed to our long delay going over. I gave up hoping to make my Delta flight.

It was clear from the mood set by the cabin crew that our flight, even in vaunted Polaris Business Class, was going to be anything but relaxing.  I just hunkered down in my cushy Polaris seat and could hardly wait to get off this plane and away from United.

And so it wasn’t (relaxing).  The photo below of the nuts and two glasses of Champagne illustrates the highlight of the flight. I drank both, though the wine was room temperature. United flight attendants seem to hate their jobs, and they sure like to spread around their personal misery.

Such a sloppy operation and crass on-board experience compared to the on-time, professionally perfect Lufthansa flight. I’m greatly relieved this was my final United flight. I hope I can use up the miles I’ve accumulated on partners like Lufthansa. United is despicable, an embarrassment to what used to be American principles of efficiency and pride. Screw ’em.

Dubai Expo visitors support Ukraine

March 23, 2022

With my wife and daughter, I was in Dubai last week attending the Dubai Expo 2020, a modern world’s fair delayed until now due to Covid.  Among the many impressive Expo country pavilions, none was more moving than Ukraine’s. The outpouring of support for Ukraine and its people was heartening, especially in a place that is tacitly backing Putin’s invasion.  I took the photos inserted here showing the thousands upon thousands of notes supporting Ukraine posted on nearly every available surface in their pavilion.

Though I’ve connected through DXB in the past, this was my first trip outside the airport. Our daughter wanted to attend the Expo over her Spring Break, and Emirates Air was offering great airfares, which we took advantage of.  The Expo was spectacular, and I wish I could recommend it.

Too late, however, I realize that we should have canceled this trip.  Because, just as our Emirates flight was pushing back from JFK, I learned this shocking news:

The UAE is not condemning Russia against Ukraine.  It’s UAE, North Korea, Russia, and Belarus in the “special military action” camp. 

The National, the newspaper mouthpiece for the ruler’s family in Dubai, has been ordered not to call it an invasion.

Emirates is one of the few airlines that continues to fly to Russia.

Word is that Russian oligarchs—who have long enjoyed safe-haven status in Dubai—are busy moving more assets to Dubai to avoid the sanctions. 

All this makes it appear the UAE is looking at this as a financial opportunity to corner the Russian kleptocrat market.

I’m told that most of the rest of the Arab world was quick to line up against the Russians. They’ve never forgotten how the Muslim people of Chechnya were treated.

I see now that it was a bad idea to visit Dubai while Russian troops are bombing hospitals and grinding Ukraine into dust. I believe in American democratic ideals and reject UAE’s unprincipled support of Putin’s tyranny. Except for this post highlighting the swell of support for Ukraine evident in the country’s Dubai Expo pavilion, I won’t be making reports from and about Dubai or Emirates Air. I cannot laud either in light of UAE’s despicable political position regarding Russia and the invasion of Ukraine.

United Airlines to Johannesburg: 3rd time still not the charm

I flew Newark to Johannesburg late last week on United Airlines 188 nonstop from Newark. It’s the third and final trip via United since June, 2021. The first two were miserable experiences and I’d hoped the third one would be the charm. Though a slight improvement over the previous itineraries, once again United failed to deliver on basic operational services.

PRE-FLIGHT AT NEWARK

I’m off again for South Africa’s peerless Kruger National Park with four friends. We flew to Newark from Raleigh this afternoon to connect to the nonstop United flight to Johannesburg. Snowy weather is en route to Newark and threatens our flight tonight to Jo’burg. But for the moment, things are calm. It’s cold (32° F.), but no frozen flakes until late tonight. Hopefully we’ll be close to the scheduled 845pm departure before the snow flies.

So far I’m loving the newly reopened United Airlines Polaris Lounge, which is reserved for international business class passengers. It’s classier and far quieter than the frenetic bedlam of the United Club. The bar serves complimentary Lanson Champagne and the lounge also boasts a real dining room with a decent menu.

Of course it’s just 3:15pm local, and our flight is 5.5 hours from scheduled pushback, so I might not feel so charitable if the worst happens later. For now, though, the well-chilled Champagne is going down well. And, yes, technically, it’s day-drinking by local time. But I’m already on South African Standard Time where it’s 10:15pm.

The miso glazed cod in the Polaris Lounge dining area was tasty and far better than on-board food, just not top-notch. Nonetheless, I’m now fed better than I will be in-flight. The shitake mushrooms were the best part.

Hope we get away from here tonight.

ON BOARD BEFORE PUSHBACK

I’m sitting this trip in the rear Polaris business class in seat 9A. The headphones provided in Polaris business class are the same weird little-big plugs as on the previous two flights. I still have no adapter from Bose that works. But so far this is the first flight to Johannesburg of the three I’ve flown since June that seems nearly normal. Even boarding Champagne is back–and in real glasses.

An irksome note: Seat 9A is the bulkhead row of the rear business class cabin. One of the United flight attendants put her bag in the overhead compartment directly above my seat, forcing me to put my carryon in the next one. That reduced the space available for the passenger right behind me. Another demerit against United Airlines.

But, wow! We are buttoned up 5 minutes before schedule departure and are ready for pushback. Could this be the exception to the cardinal United Airlines rule that things never go right? It even looks like we beat the heavy snow predicted for later tonight. Johannesburg next!

DURING THE FLIGHT

I was far too (foolishly) hopeful that United Airlines would perform well last night by getting us off the ground on time. Despite being buttoned at 8:45p (on schedule) in the passenger cabin, United wasted another 75 minutes loading cargo (which of course could have been done hours before). Our flight wasn’t airborne until 10:10p. So instead of landing at Johannesburg on schedule at 6:10p, we touched down about an hour late. This flight is chronically late, another reason to avoid United after this third itinerary is complete.

Service in the air on United 188 EWR/JNB has steadily improved since my previous flights in June and October. Slightly improved, that is. The meal is still an all-at-once tray plunked down unceremoniously–and the boring beef, chicken and vegetarian choices haven’t changed.

But at least real glassware has returned. My Champagne came in a standard water glass. Not classy, yet still better than the blue plastic cups used on the same flights in June and October.

I chose the pasta; it was nothing special. Truth be told, I wasn’t very hungry because I had eaten the miso glazed cod in the Polaris Lounge an hour before boarding (the shitake mushrooms were the tastiest part of that dish). I nibbled at the cheese-filled pasta and greatly enjoyed the tiny container of mango sorbet. Also picked out the cashews from the wee bowl of nuts.

As we left the east coast for our Atlantic crossing, ascent was the fastest I can remember. Very quickly up to 30,000 feet and kept up the climb to 34,000. I watched the rise on the moving map display and was amazed to see a 120-130 mph tailwind.

Pretty soon our ground speed topped 690 mph, a remarkable pace, especially as the plane, a Boeing 787-9, fully loaded with fuel for the 8,000 mile nonstop, was still climbing.

The hurricane force tailwinds at that altitude made for a bumpy ride during the first two hours, but shaved off a few minutes of the tedious delay at the gate. Still an hour behind schedule, though.

The cabin crew up front was relaxed and responsive. Certainly not like the intense personal attentiveness of flight attendants on Qatar Airways and Singapore Air, but at least the United crew wasn’t testy (not much of an accolade, I know).

Breakfast came an hour before landing and was satisfying and delicious: Egg whites, turkey sausage, potatoes, fruit, Greek yogurt, and a croissant. Breakfasts on board overseas flights in every cabin are hard to get wrong and usually my favorite meal in the air. Today‘s was no exception.

We flew an unusual route over parts of Africa to Johannesburg. We made landfall north of Dakar, Senegal before overflying the sahel and West Africa. Past air routes in my experience have stayed overwater just west of Monrovia before coming ashore in southwest Angola or northwest Namibia.

After immigration, we walk through the attached car park to the City Lodge Hotel here at O.R. Tambo Johannesburg airport to check in, have a quick bite, and hopefully get some shut-eye.

Tomorrow morning we meet for breakfast at 7:00am and then walk to the domestic terminal to catch our 10am SA Airlink flight from Johannesburg to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park.

I’m greatly relieved that we made it here! Given the severe winter snow storm forecast for Newark and NYC, plus United’s knee-jerk tendency to cancel flights, I wasn’t sure we would. Now we’re eight thousand miles from Newark in the Southern Hemisphere where it’s summer. Aaah!

Bologna & Milan are great Italian cities, too!

February 22, 2022

How could the less-popular Italian cities of Bologna and Milan compete with the glories of Rome for food, ambiance, and history? After spending time recently in all three cities, I found both towns to be great places I want to return to.

My family and I vacationed for ten glorious days in Italy over the New Year holidays.  The first six days were in Rome, followed by two days each in Bologna and Milan.  My real-time notes follow from both places—hence the present tense verbiage:

BOLOGNA

With little more than the Internet to guide us, we rented an apartment in Bologna for my family of four. A long-ish taxi ride to our place in the Via Santo Stefano made me wonder if we were distant from the city center. Instead, this flat is close to the main piazza, less than a 20-minute walk. We took off to see the central city after quickly unpacking.

Except for my paranoia regarding Covid crowds, our New Year’s afternoon traipses through the heart of Bologna’s historic piazzas were delightful.

Tonight we dine at a trattoria that includes an only-in-Bologna meat entree called “Cotoletta alla Bolognese” which is apparently fried veal with prosciutto and mozzarella. Sounds like a real heart-attack special.  Normally that much unhealthy protein is not my thing–and fried to boot–but, heck, when am I going to be in Bologna again? What could go wrong?

Dinner last evening at a traditional Bolognese trattoria was superb in every way, as the photos above and below indicate: Good food, authentic atmosphere, and convivial.

Our 4th-floor apartment (3rd floor in Europe, which counts the ground floor as zero) is delightful here on the Via dei Santo Stefano. The alley tile roof view is from our window.

We just completed a pleasing four-hour walk through Bologna led by my wife and daughter, with thanks to them for the research and route. The weather is gorgeous: bright sun and 52° F. after an early morning temp of 37°. Just right for walking.

Apparently, the people of Bologna thought the same judging by the crowds everywhere. Of course, it’s Sunday, which probably brought out more people. It also rains frequently in Bologna, so today was exceptional weather for us and for residents.

We were awed by the colonnades that Bologna is famous for. Over forty kilometers of colonnades, in fact. You can walk virtually anywhere in Bologna and never leave a colonnade.

Construction of colonnades here began in the 11th century roughly contemporaneous with the establishment of the University of Bologna in 1088 (which makes UNIBO the oldest university in the world).

Colonnades kept residents out of the rain and sun; more and more were built for centuries. It’s a brilliant means of maintaining vibrant social and commercial life regardless of the weather.

I’m sure there was ample graffiti in Rome, but somehow I overlooked it. Here in Bologna, though, graffiti seems more prevalent. I’ve had to carefully frame many of my shots to avoid including graffiti. Perhaps the proximity of a huge university (81,000+ students) proximate to central Bologna explains it.

I love the ornate balcony (above) covered by what appears to me to be a gigantic stone Pope hat on the modest church.

In a more contemporary vein, the Fiat police car in the next to last photo also caught my fancy. A tiny, but flashy, Fiat police car!

Bologna’s famous statue of Neptune can be seen at the end of the arch in the picture above. I also like the woman with a little dog in the foreground. Italians love their dogs like we do in America, but folks in Bologna seem to have a lot more dogs, and breeds of dogs, than the Romans.

We stopped for a look at Bologna’s famous two towers (pictured above, next after the tile roof), some of the last remaining towers of their kind. Apparently, Bologna was dotted with such towers during an earlier age.

Our son craved Pizza for lunch today (most Italian pizza being far superior to most American pies), and he expertly guided us to a cafe noted for its pizzas off the main piazza. It is grandly called Regina Sofia (Queen Sofia).

Turns out the restaurant is also known for its seafood, some of which were wildly expensive as stand-alone courses. We didn’t order any, sticking instead to pizza and salad. 

Regina Sofia is styled to be elegant. A bit smug and pretentious to me. A huge contrast to the traditional old cafes we’ve mostly inhabited for lunches and dinners in Rome and last night here in Bologna.

The menu was available only in Italian, which I took to imply Regina Sofia didn’t cotton to tourists. They seemed pretty pleased to take my money just the same.

The pizzas were excellent, however, and the bread and pizza crusts were outstanding. We all enjoyed our Sofia sojourn and left with happy stomachs. The bill totaled €55 ($62.50) including many and various taxes and services. An average of $15 per meal, which was reasonable for the pleasure to our palates.

One of the world-class wine stores in Bologna. This photo is of only one room of two!

MILAN

Since our train for Milan departed Bologna at 936am, we had to leave our apartment on the other side of town by 830am. I was a bit nervous this morning because Bologna’s monopoly taxi service wouldn’t let me reserve a cab for four persons yesterday. Due to Covid, taxi drivers do not allow customers to ride in the front seat, and few cars accommodate four passengers.

The English-speaking cab company dispatcher politely made me call back 15 minutes ahead. To be safe, I phoned just before 800am. I was relieved that the company sent a car promptly and one that accommodated all four of us. We arrived at the station before 830am. 

And there grabbed a cappuccino and croissant to wait in the cold (a nippy 37° F.) outside. Tables inside the modest coffee bar were removed for Covid.

Our high-speed Frecciarossa train was once again very comfortable in reasonably-priced Business Class.  This one reached 285 KPH or about 177 MPH. It took just over an hour to reach Milan from Bologna.

View from our AC Marriott window of downtown Milan and adjacent Garibaldi train station

We took a taxi to the AC Marriott Milano Hotel where we have two rooms booked for our last night in Italy this trip. Very reasonable cab fare at €15.10, I thought.

The AC Marriott had our rooms ready upon our arrival about 1130am, thank goodness. Our Delta flight to JFK tomorrow departs at noon, and the CDC now requires a negative Covid test not more than 24 hours prior. I was anxious for us to get started on the somewhat slow online proctored testing process using the Abbott antigen tests I had brought. I needed a private place like our hotel room and hotel wifi to conduct the tests using the Abbott Navica app partnering with eMed.com.

Good thing I brought eight Abbott tests for four people because the eMed online proctors were very strict about expiration dates: cannot be more than three months past the date printed on the box. One test was rejected. [Note: expiration dates have since been extended to six months by the FDA.]

It took exactly two hours to get all four of us tested, obtain the certified results, upload them all to Delta Airlines along with copies of our CDC vaccination cards, wait for the health documents to be approved, and then to get our boarding passes. Miracle! We are now checked in and ready to go.

The CDC says testing is just the day before one’s flight. But I waited until after 12 noon to be absolutely certain.

The testing chore completed, we used the marvelous streetcar network to get to central Milan for a walking tour of the area. Especially impressive are the stupendous Milano Duomo (below) and the adjacent gargantuan galleria of elegant stores and restaurants.

We enjoyed strolling through the astonishing galleria next to the Duomo and grabbed lunch at the Pizzeria Spontini where we enjoyed northern Italian-style thick pizza. It’s a great concept established in 1953.

We headed out at 630p to walk through Chinatown before our 730p dinner plans. Milan has a sizable Chinese population, many of whom immigrated to Italy from Shanghai.

Upon finding our chosen trattoria inexplicably closed, we stumbled across a charming estoria a couple of blocks away that provided ample ambiance, gracious service, tasty victuals, and a magnificent wine to cap our Italian adventure.

We dined and drank like kings tonight.  I carefully chose a 2016 (a good vintage) Brunello di Montalcino by a great producer. The estoria owner smartly insisted on decanting the vino to open it to our palates, which it most effectively did. Every tiny sip of the Montalcino was sumptuous.

I ordered a simple plate of Tuscan meats and pecorino cheese. My wife had a scrumptious risotto, our son chowed down on Tuscan sausage over roasted potatoes, and our daughter enjoyed a salad and roasted potatoes.

A delicious panna cotta with a heavenly raspberry topping finished the meal, which we shared.

And then the owner offered his housemade limoncello, gratis. It was the perfect way to end the perfect meal and wine and the perfect Italian experience.  

Altogether, sojourns in Rome, Bologna, and Milan to sample those great cities’ cultures and cuisine proved to be an ideal itinerary.  I miss it all already.

Delta excels Milan/JFK/RDU

February 15, 2022

Kudos to the stylish AC Marriott Milan for making our final night relaxing. Joe Brancatelli told me it’s an AC built before Marriott bought the chain, so it remains Spanish at heart (“AC” stands for Antonio Catalan, the chain’s creator). I would definitely stay there again.

The hotel is adjacent to the Garibaldi train station where we caught the Malpensa Airport Express at 835am. There’s a convenient underground passage to the station just outside the hotel’s main entrance.

We eventually found our way to the correct subterranean passageway to the through trains.  However, the Malpensa Express train posted the track two minutes before arrival, a nailbiter for us waiting at the station.

Milan’s Malpensa Airport is a long way out of town. The train takes 45 minutes to get there. We arrived at 920a and soon checked in at Delta for our noon flight.

En route to the airport, I consulted the FlightAware app on my phone and was happy to find that Delta 0172 JFK/MXP operated on time the previous evening despite snowy weather in New York. So we had a plane. I was also relieved to learn when we checked in that we had a crew for DL0173 MXP/JFK.

I uploaded all our negative Covid tests and vax cards the day before, but despite three tries, the Delta system never accepted some of them. That necessitated the stop at the Delta counter.

Security screening went efficiently, thanks to courteous Malpensa professionals staffing the area.

Once inside security, we stopped for breakfast and to wait for boarding at the Sala Montale Lounge, thanks to our American Express Priority Pass cards.  My first visit to that lounge.  Nice place, decent food, quiet.

A lucky “equipment change” on our Delta flight (airline lingo meaning a different airplane) today meant we got to sit in Delta’s Premium Economy seats, though we were booked in Comfort+. PE seats are much more comfortable and roomy than coach chairs, seven across in a 2-3-2 configuration rather than the narrower eight seats across in economy. See the photos of the Premium Economy cabin and our seats in the bulkhead row.

Just as flying over on Christmas night, our flight was full. I walked to the back and was surprised to see very few empty seats. Business and Comfort+ (Premium Economy on this aircraft) were both packed out.

A surprisingly flavorful Thai chicken curry was served for lunch. I’m sure it was catered from a Milan kitchen, which would account for its higher-than-usual quality. The salted caramel ice cream was excellent and made in England.

En route, the flight crew told us that the authorities on arrival to JFK would want to see our negative Covid test results and passports as we exited the plane, which would have been a new hurdle in the international air travel marathon. This despite having uploaded those tests the previous day before being allowed to check-in for our flight. I reflected that pandemic data-sharing software systems haven’t been perfected. I also imagined another long queue just after deplaning. Good thing, I thought, that we don’t have a tight connection.

That didn’t happen once we landed at JFK, however.  No idea why the crew made that misleading announcement.

Although we love home and had fulfilling lives to get back to, it was hard to leave Italy that morning. Small consolation, at least, that things went smoothly getting to JFK from Milan.

Awaiting our 730p flight to Raleigh, I reflected on our wonderful, memorable family trip. I hope it won’t the last that all four of us travel together.

During our connecting wait time in the JFK Airport B32 Delta SkyClub for our 740p flight to RDU, we witnessed a gorgeous sunset.

The last flight from JFK to Raleigh was absurdly scheduled for 1 hour, 55 minutes when the actual flight time is usually around 60 minutes. Reason being, naturally, the inefficient and congested JFK operation.

Our scheduled departure was 740pm from JFK gate C60.  Boarding began 705pm, completed 730pm. The boarding door closed at 733pm.  However, the ramp fellows took another 12 minutes to load the pink-tagged bags, so we missed our departure by 5 minutes.

Further delay because the ramp staff couldn’t get organized for pushback. Pushed back at 748pm.  Then we were stuck in the alley waiting for another Delta flight that pushed back just after we did. We’d have been ahead if on time.  Our plane finally taxied out of the alley at 751pm and then across the entire JFK tarmac to the far side and joined a long queue awaiting takeoff.  We finally got airborne at 818pm, 45 mins after the boarding door closed.

After a long, slow approach to RDU, we touched down at 934pm and arrived at our gate at 939pm.  This was an 80 min flight gate to gate in the 1980s.

Despite that carping, I thought the airline did a fine job getting us home.  That’s why I continue to laud Delta as the least worst U.S. carrier and my first choice when looking to fly almost anywhere.

United Airlines lost my business…again

February 8, 2022

Indifferent, incompetent, even stupid.  These are some of the adjectives that come unprompted to mind when I reflect on my experiences with three United itineraries to South Africa in business class since July 2021.  In booking those flights, I gave United a chance to redeem a personal 28-year aversion to throwing money their way.  Now I regret it, and I won’t do it again.

In 1994, I was still flying hundreds of thousands of miles annually on business, and United was my go-to carrier.  Every year I earned what UA came to dub 1K flyer status with the perks that came with it.  But all the upgrades in the world were insufficient to overcome the chronically poor operation and awful attitudes of United’s customer-facing employees that plagued the airline more and more from the late 80s to the 90s.

I vividly recall sitting in first class on a United flight from O’Hare to Raleigh in 1994 and suddenly saying, “Enough!”  The gate agents had been rude and snippy.  Once on-board the airplane, the flight attendants were absorbed in viciously bashing their employer in loud voices in the galley just ahead of my row 1B seat while we business flyers sat unattended and ignored in the front cabin.  Not even a coffee or water was offered during the long boarding process while we waited a half-hour after every customer was seated for the bumbling ramp crew to load bags.

I remember thinking that I’d paid full-fare—something like $800 at the time—for the roundtrip RDU/ORD and was getting little or nothing for it.  After takeoff—over an hour behind schedule—the cabin crew coldly took our drink orders, but refused to serve the advertised meal because of unspecified “catering problems.”  After one round of drinks, they disappeared again into the galley behind the flimsy curtain and pretended their customers weren’t there for two hours until arrival.  We were over an hour late by the time we reached the gate.

That wasn’t the first such bad experience on United; it was just one of scores and scores.  Almost every flight had by then become a similar painful and depressing test of endurance. 

So I walked away from United and didn’t fly them again until 2021.  I was already an elite flyer on Delta and American, so it was easy to switch my allegiance.

As I wrote last March, I was in the process of planning three trips to South Africa.  Due to the chaos of international flying caused by the pandemic, Delta, my carrier of choice to SA for decades, had suspended their Atlanta-Johannesburg nonstop temporarily.  With no reliable reinstatement date for the Delta nonstop, I learned that United was offering bargain-basement business class and premium economy fares from Newark to Jo’burg.

My mistrust of United hadn’t really abated over the intervening two and half decades, but I thought if I went in Polaris Business class, then United couldn’t really screw that up. Several traveling companions were dependent upon me on each of the three trips planned, so I was careful to warn them that even in premium classes, United might fail us.

Turns out I was wise to raise the caution flag, as I documented during and after the first two itineraries here and again here.  I made a poor decision giving United another chance.

Flights to Johannesburg and back in July-August and in October-November were minimalist, un-fun affairs, and every flight was late.  Much worse, United screwed up the outbound domestic connection flights in July, almost ruining our trip and costing us hundreds of dollars to cure their error, for which we were never reimbursed. 

And now United has bungled our return flights for the upcoming Feb-Mar trip.

In two weeks four friends are traveling with me to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, my third of the three United itineraries.  As far as I could tell until recently, everything was going fine.

Ten days ago I got a 1030pm email from my stalwart travel agent Steve Crandall, owner of Discount Travel in Jacksonville, Florida.  Steve had coincidentally looked at the five United itineraries he’d booked for us and discovered that all five returns had been canceled. 

Turns out United management decided in December to reduce frequencies of its EWR/JNB nonstop from daily to five days per week.  Except that the airline never notified us of the change, and their schedule change impacted our returns. 

Worse, United didn’t bother to protect us on alternative flights, either on different days or on partner airlines.

I took the bad news hard.  Every airline strives to “protect” confirmed customers disrupted by the company’s own decisions.  How could this happen?  With less than a month before our outbound flights, we now had no returns booked.

Naturally, the low fare classes we purchased last March were no longer available, if indeed any seats were available in premium economy (four of us) or in business class (me).  In cases like this, United is obligated to either refund our money in full or confirm us on alternate flights while overbooking the fare class to honor what we paid nearly a year ago.

Having received this information at 1030pm, I immediately started trying to reach United by phone.  The website and app would not allow me to rebook our return, let alone reissue the tickets. 

I gave up at 420am after six hours of trying.  Call after call through the night resulted in long waits followed by mystery disconnects and a hang-up. I never was able to reach a person at United.  

Exhausted and dispirited, I beseeched Steve Crandall in a 430am email to help me, even though agents are under no obligation under these circumstances.  Only an airline can reissue a ticket and overbook a fare class.

Nonetheless, Steve offered to reach out to United to explain what they needed to do.

Steve was successful in getting UA to change my reservation and the other four in the United system, booking all of us on United partner Lufthansa from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, and then on United from Frankfurt to the USA. 

However, he explained, that was the easy part.  The hard part was getting each of the four tickets changed to match the reservation.  That required reissuing each ticket.

So Steve called United, and after holding for a while, an agent answered who was pretty knowledgeable about the protection agreements.  Of course, as I suspected, the lower fares that we originally purchased (P class for me in business, and R class for my four companions in premium economy) were no longer available. 

The United agent confirmed that UNITED had to reissue the ticket, not the travel agent. This was especially critical, she said, because Lufthansa was part of the ticket and, again, no low fare inventory, which required overbooking.  Though it took a long while just to reissue one ticket (mine), the UA agent got it done with approval from her Rate Desk.  She emailed it to me when complete.

That process took about 50 minutes.  After the time involved, Steve wasn’t inclined to ask her to do four more, and he had a lot of other things going on at his agency, including getting Southwest Airlines paid for 48 seats for a university group trip (business like that being his agency’s bread and butter).    

Having added in the new Lufthansa and United flights via Frankfurt for the other four, Steve reiterated that that was the easy part.  The original United tickets would have to be reissued one by one, just like UA did for me while he coaxed them through it. 

He advised us to try to reach United ourselves, but to be ready to hold for about a half-hour.  Steve warned me that UA cannot tell us that the travel agency has to do it.  Only United has the authority to do it.  

Steve advised that UA may say otherwise when they see it’s an agency booking, but once they see the issue of Lufthansa and that the lower class is not open, they will do it. They have to, he said.

I talked to my four traveling companions that night.  All were firmly opposed to trying themselves to have the tickets reissued; they felt they were not competent to get it right.  I couldn’t blame them.

However, they were fine to let me try it on their collective behalf or to have Steve Crandall do it if I should fail.

So I phoned United and was relieved to find myself connected to a callback service similar to Delta’s.  That had not been an option before.  I left my number and agreed to be called back.

A United agent in India returned my call about 10pm.  I slowly and patiently explained the situation and provided my record locator, then the other four record locators. 

He read through my reissued tickets and all the histories of the other four itineraries. 

After checking what he should do by comparing the other four itineraries to my reissued ticket, he agreed the other four needed to be reissued.

He then placed me on hold (with my permission) while he checked with his “ticketing department” (not sure what exactly he meant—maybe he meant the Rate Desk) to be sure how to reissue the four tickets.

When he came back on the line, the agent reassured me that the four tickets could be reissued under the protection agreements, but said neither he nor his “ticketing department” could do it because Steve had booked those four in the wrong fare class.  Of course, that was hogwash because the cheaper fare class was no longer available, hence United’s obligation to overbook the lower fare class and reissue the tickets.

The agent advised me to contact the travel agent (Steve Crandall) to change the fare class of the four tickets to “R” and then for Steve to contact United tomorrow to have the four tickets reissued.  I tried to explain that only United could do that, but he insisted that neither he nor his “ticketing department” could take any action until Steve changed the fare class to R.  My arguments to the contrary got nowhere.

In fact, the fellow was so befuddled that he almost undid my reissued ticket.  I had to strenuously object to him touching my record.  Was he just plain stupid? I had to wonder.

Exasperated, I hung up, and let Steve know.  I explained that I had tried and failed and asked for his help.

On reflection, I think the United fellow was either incompetent or a flat-out liar.  Impossible to know which, but, either way, his failure to do what was necessary was 100% United’s responsibility.  The man was wrong, and no help, just wasted my time.  Except he got paid for his time.  My reward was lost personal time and more frustration.  All on account of United’s screw-up and systemic fiascos.

The next day Steve took pity on us and called United again on our behalf.  He spent more than an hour on the phone with yet another United agent and really had to walk her through what happened.  Steve showed her how yesterday’s UA agent had reissued my ticket. 

The new agent had Steve on hold for a long time while she went back to the infamous United Rate Desk for help.  Eventually, she was cleared to reissue all four tickets on Lufthansa and United via FRA in the same low fare class we paid for.  My four traveling companions received reissued tickets by email that afternoon.

I tried to pay Steve for his troubles (this was way over and beyond what an agent is responsible for), but he steadfastly refused.  Instead, I bought and shipped Steve a really good bourbon to sip on in his rare spare time.

But that was not the end of the story.  Now that we must fly on Lufthansa from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, it was necessary for each of us to register a Lufthansa account in order to enter our passports, DOBs, and other personal data.  After that, we had to link the new Lufthansa record locators to our newly registered accounts.

Then we had to download the Lufthansa app onto our smartphones and sign in using the registered usernames and passwords we had created.  That signaled a link to our individual records for the Lufthansa JNB/FRA flight so that we will be able to upload our Covid test results and CDC vax cards to Lufthansa within 24 hours prior to our flight.  Hopefully, we will also then be able to check in once the requisite documentation is approved.

A final snafu to flying on Lufthansa is that the German carrier charges $60 for seat reservations in premium economy.  Seat assignments on United are included in the fare, but Lufthansa doesn’t seem to give a flip about that or our disruptions.  The airline wants their sixty bucks per seat or take our chances at the airport on check-in.

The charge didn’t apply to me because I am in business class; however, Lufthansa won’t let me choose my seat.  Instead, their system has chosen a seat in business for me, like it or not.

Once I get home from this third itinerary, I am done with United for good.  As I said already, I made a very poor choice thinking a quarter century would have improved United Airlines.  The putrid stink of United’s indifference and apathy toward their customers pervades the culture.  Management has neither the will nor the competence to mend the airline’s perpetually abysmal service. United is a rotting corpse.

Why doesn’t America have fast trains like Italy?

February 1, 2022

A month ago today I rode with my family on a fast Italian train Rome-Florence-Bologna. The highest speed trains in Italy are called Frecciarossa (red arrow); ours was punctual to the second in the way German trains once were. Oh, the irony! When I lived and worked in Munich 1975-76, it was the other way round. 

And fast! Trenitalia Frecciarossa trains run at 250 kph, which is 155 mph.

High-speed trains in Italy are called Le Frecce and come in all flavors. Frecciarossa, the ones we rode, are the highest speed and most lavishly appointed trainsets. Followed by Frecciargento and Frecciabianca. Even the relatively slow White Arrow trains (Frecciabianca) are faster than anything in the USA.

What kills me about these Italian trains is that they are utterly routine. Frecciarossa trains operate all over Italy and Europe frequently between major cities. Our train, designated #9420, runs daily Naples-Rome-Florence-Venice.

In the photo of the information screen above our seats, note the speed at the time I snapped the picture was 249 KPH.

Fare in extremely comfortable and roomy business class one way Rome to Bologna was $51.40 per person and included complimentary water, snacks, and because it was New Year’s Day, a decent prosecco (not routine).

As good as business class was, there is also first class, which features bigger seats installed just two across (1-1) as opposed to our three seats across (1-2) in business. More complimentary stuff in first class, too (unlimited full meals and wine).

Photos above and below were taken before we departed Roma Termini (Rome main train station) include the departures schedule for the astonishing number of daily trains from Roma Termini.

It all puts America’s passenger trains to shame, especially since the USA is 32.5 times larger than Italy (see graphic below).  Even more shameful is that these trains, as I said above, are ho-hum routine operations that Italians take for granted. And yet we can’t get anything going like this in America.

The picture just above was taken after our 15 minute stop in Florence, you can see the Duomo in the distance from the approach tracks.

We arrived in Bologna at 2:58 PM (1458 in European time parlance—I believe America is the only country not to use 24-hour clock time). The high-speed Frecciarossa train is the ONLY way to travel in Italy!

Of course, Italy is small, just 75% the size of California, apparent from the map of Italy overlaid on the USA inserted above. Few realize how small Italy is compared to America because everything is so condensed there. Its compact size combined with the relatively close proximity of major Italian cities (Genoa, Venice, Bologna, Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples) makes it ideal for attracting robust ridership on a high-speed train network.

Plus a more enlightened attitude towards public spending, of course, but I’ll stick just to the question of geography for now.

So where in the USA would such high-speed trains work? Here is my thinking:

The U.S., with vast empty spaces west of the Mississippi, has few big or big-ish cities close enough together where a high-speed train network could be justified:

  • Boston-NYC-Philly-Washington-Richmond-Norfolk
  • Philadelphia-Pittsburgh-Cleveland-Toledo-Detroit
  • NYC-Washington-Richmond-Raleigh-Charlotte-Atlanta
  • Minneapolis-Milwaukee-Chicago-St.Louis-Kansas City
  • Dallas-Houston
  • San Diego-L.A.-San Francisco
  • Seattle-Portland
  • Jacksonville-Orlando-Miami
  • Orlando-Tampa/St. Petersburg

Isolated cities like Denver, Las Vegas, New Orleans, Nashville, and Phoenix are more difficult to justify connecting via high-speed trains as in Europe.

Is my thinking too naive? Maybe we should restructure Amtrak into two parts: One part to focus on big-money-losing but much-loved long-distance overnight trains, and the other part focused entirely on building an American high-speed train network that loses less money or is profitable.

Two days later we left Bologna on another high-speed Frecciarossa train for Milan.  It was once again very comfortable in reasonably-priced Business Class.  That one reached 285 KPH or about 177 MPH. It took just over an hour to reach Milan from Bologna.

Access to track level was carefully policed due to Covid. Temperatures, vaccination records, mask type (must be hospital-grade N95 or equivalent), and tickets were checked.

Arriving the gorgeous, classically grand, and bustling Milano Centrale station is always a thrill. We dallied long enough to purchase four tickets on the Malpensa Express train to the airport the following morning. Tickets totaled €52, or about $56, which makes it $13 each. The international Milan Airport, MXP, is a long way out of town, so the price was a bargain.

Great intercity high-speed trains and a train to the airport are routine everyday services in Italy.  Why not America?

Ancient Rome and modern pizza

January 25, 2022

THE ROMAN FORUM

Rome with my family over Christmas was the right choice for eternal beauty, culinary delights, and Covid safety.

The perspective of my panoramic picture above is from high over the ancient Roman Forum. It’s a spectacular view from that vantage!  It begins at the “Wedding Cake” memorial to Italy’s 1885 unification (left) and ends at the Coliseum (right). In between are the remains (ruins) of the layers of the Roman Forum that date from about 800 B.C. to around 500 A.D.

We saw all this on December 30th in a blur of activity, beginning with an intense three and half hours walking tour of the Roman Forum in the photo, and much more, led by famed archeologist Darius Arya. We were captivated by the ancient history of Rome that Darius brought to life for us as we moved through many layers of the past, starting with around 800 B.C. through the generally accepted date of the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 A.D. (detail here).

We learned that Rome as a place and an increasingly important center of commerce began about three centuries before it became a republic. The Roman Republic was founded in 509 B.C. when the last Etruscan king of Rome was overthrown.

The Republic lasted nearly 500 years until Mark Antony became Emperor in 27 B.C., though the 44 B.C. assassination of Julius Caesar, which occurred right outside the window of our fab flat in Largo Argentina, presaged the end. Imperial Rome then lasted nearly another five centuries.

Point is, many successive layers of Roman history were built on and over where the current Forum stands. Excavation there reveals its complex strata of history.

Pictures included in this post only provide a glimpse at what we saw on our Roman Forum Super Pass tickets (highly recommended for anyone interested in ancient Rome history), with grateful thanks to expert Darius Arya.

Darius’ encyclopedic knowledge of Roman history was fascinating. My wife described it as like drinking from a fire hose. We weren’t complaining!  Darius made it a Master Class of ancient Rome.

And his expertise, already available via many videos (National Geographic and YouTube, for example), will soon be available through The Learning Company’s Great Courses series.

THE COLISEUM

Darius Arya takes a photo of the Coliseum

Bidding farewell to Darius, we wandered over to the adjacent Coliseum. Overrated, in my opinion, and certainly horribly overcrowded, yet impressive and a must-see in Rome. Our Super Pass tickets got us inside and all around, but the hordes of Goths and other barbarians who eventually conquered Rome paled in comparison to the swarms of tourists crawling over the ancient amphitheater. I could hardly wait to leave.

Every person entering was required to show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination, a protocol that was strictly enforced. Somehow, though, that didn’t make me feel any better about the crowding.

PIZZA & PARMA AT EMMA

After leaving the Coliseum and Roman Forum, we dined at Emma, the place with the best pizza in Rome and an easy walk from our beautiful apartment in Largo Argentina. Our son surveys the scene (above) before enjoying a chilled draft Italian craft lager. We were seated just prior to the midday rush, after which few tables were available. Somehow we got in twice without reservations. This view accurately depicts the modern, relaxed vibe at Emma, far different from the more traditional restaurants we frequented for big evening meals.

In addition to the wonderful pizza (we took slices back to the flat), I ordered 40-month old aged Parma (see plate piled high below), some of the tastiest prosciutti ever. The hand-carved ham was perfectly complemented by homemade Italian bread, local olive oil, and cracked pepper. It was heavenly!

The photos below capture us sampling the goods at two of the best Roman purveyors of gelato. Both were superb, but the humble one, Corona, was my winner. All their products are made by the family in the back of the tiny storefront.

The bright green light indicates a customer may enter. The interior space is so small that it’s limited to three people at once, after which the light turns red until someone leaves. That restriction is due to Covid, of course.

Corona, the humble Roman gelato place in Largo Argentina where everything is homemade in the rear of the store.

Looks can be deceiving, however. The modernized Alberto Pica pictured below predates Corona, and its namesake, old man Alberto, was a legend in the gelato business during his life.

All kinds of fancy gelato have been contrived to satisfy Roman palates, but my favorite flavors are the simplest, such as vanilla or lemon.

Alberto Pica, a modern and fancy gelato store in Rome, is just a short walk from Largo Argentina.

The last photo is the Roman light rail line that runs by Largo Argentina and terminates by the ostentatious “wedding cake” memorial at Piazza Venezia. I watched those trains glide by for nearly a week and was envious of the robust ridership and 5-8 minute frequencies.

I shouldn’t have been so worried about the crowds. First, Italy is very strict about requiring proof of vaccinations and wearing masks inside and out. Second, if by 2023 Covid hasn’t receded, then we’re probably all in the (viral) soup. So why worry? Resignation to a changing world is probably more in order. Making the trip to Italy is the leading edge of that acceptance. I can’t hide in the cave that our home has become forever.

I highly recommend staying in the Largo Argentina area because Rome becomes like a small town where everything is easily walkable. Even the ancient ruins of the Roman Forum are just 15 minutes away on foot, and Emma for pizza and prosciutto is even closer!

La dolce vita in Rome over Christmas

January 18, 2022

After spending the week after Christmas, 2021 and the first week of 2022 in Italy with my family, I am compelled to pen an unapologetic love letter to Italy.  Last week I made the case for Italy being safer than Raleigh during Omicron.  My real-time notes bear out the sweet life to be had in Rome:

December 27

Slept in past 800am this morning, a late-rising record for me, as we adjusted to Euro time. We were pleased to see sunlight after yesterday’s all-day rain. With the shops open after the holiday weekend, my wife found a rain jacket to replace one inexplicably lost by TSA on Saturday at the RDU security screen.

It was a twenty minute walk to the Vatican to visit St. Peter’s Basilica.

Entry to the giant church is free, but a long queue and airport-style security made it a somewhat slow process. A young priest was on hand armed with a digital thermometer to check everyone’s forehead temp prior to entry, too. Once inside St. Peter’s, the enormous space easily swallowed up the multitudes who’d been waiting in line, including us.

Looking around, our twenty-something son quipped, straight-faced, that he was impressed at the scale and beauty built for the “Angels & Demons” movie set.

The Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel, charges a fee, something we may do later this week.

Walking back to our apartment in the Largo Argentina, we stopped at Buddy (no apostrophe “s”), a vegetarian and vegan restaurant, for a delicious pizza lunch before strolling around the street market at Campo de Fiori. 

Then another visit to nearby Piazza Navona where I spied Enoteca Cul de Sac, yesterday’s lunch spot, at the end of an alley.

We wandered into an elegant cheese and wine shop in the Jewish Ghetto, this one reputed to stock among the most varied and exotic cheeses in Rome. (Certainly more cheese than found in the Monty Python “cheese shop” skit).

The day passed quickly, mid-afternoon spent stocking up on groceries and household supplies from the local Coop grocery. Tonight seven of us dine in the Ghetto at a well-regarded vegetarian restaurant. Reservations are for 800pm, early by Italian standards.  Unlike the U.S., evening meals in Italy begin in earnest around 900pm and frequently go on for hours.

December 28

Since arriving two days ago, I’ve praised this apartment’s marvelous location on the Largo Argentina for easy walking access to virtually every major Roman site. Most ancient places are on this side of the Tiber River, a major exception being the Vatican on the far side (but still relatively close on foot).

Today our daughter mapped out several walks on the other side of the Tiber that are some distance from the Holy See. The route included crossing the pedestrian-only Ponte Sisto and passing the Roman Botanical Garden (at €13 each, we gave it a miss).

Several restaurants had signs posted like the photo above. The Super Green Pass is the Italian version of a vax card. The American CDC vax card is accepted as equivalent.

Picture above was taken from the vantage of one of the Roman hills we surmounted on our walk.

For lunch our daughter found a new vegan restaurant called Aromaticus, which boasts of a “Green Kitchen” (100% vegan). Very modern, sleek & stylish place with a young, well-dressed clientele. Delicious dishes! We tried, among other entrees, falafel, hummus, salad, and curry. All were excellent.

Great concept, and one of two in Rome. We chatted with the owner. He and his wife invented the restaurants. My impression: Vegan meets Italian chefs equals YUM!

Then back to our gorgeous apartment to greet and confer with famous archeologist Darius Arya, expert in ancient Rome. Darius and his wife are friends of Joe and Joel Brancatelli, and we are most grateful for the introduction. He is graciously taking us on a private tour tomorrow of the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, and the Coliseum.

Our son relaxing in the living room of our rented flat in Rome

Darius has produced some 600 videos on ancient Rome and Italy. One recent on his YouTube channel is of Pompeii and has clocked over 80,000 views to date. Darius has also done an eight-part series for National Geographic and recently agreed to produce an ancient culture series for The Great Courses. I’ll post a report after our tours with Darius tomorrow.

Every night at 8:00 PM this week here in Rome, Joe Brancatelli has planned a rich dining experience, with careful consideration to individual palates and needs. As for example our daughter, who prefers a vegan diet.  Selecting restaurants that offer something to please everyone’s taste is a challenge, one Joe excelled at.

This evening it was a seafood restaurant tucked away in a narrow alley between the Campo di Fiori and Piazza Navona. I don’t know how the heck he found it.

Unassuming in appearance and quite small, with a single waiter, the kitchen produced one delicious culinary gem after another through four courses.

I could describe the pictured dishes, but it wouldn’t do them justice. Every plate held a work of art for the eyes and mouth.  No leftovers, either!

+++ End of real-time notes +++

Next week I’ll describe our four-hour walking tour of ancient Rome led by Darius Arya.  My first visit to the ruins was in 1973, but now I realize that I had dim appreciation for it until seeing Roman history through the eyes of an expert archeologist. 

Italy safer than America during Omicron

January 11, 2022

My family joined me for nine nights in Rome, Bologna, and Milan. We flew over on Christmas night.

Was it crazy to visit Italy at the height of the Omicron surge?  No, absolutely not. Safer than life in Raleigh. Because the Italians have adapted to living large under the coronavirus cloud far better than we Americans have.  After suffering one of the highest death rates (140,000) when the Covid pandemic began in 2020, Italy took serious measures to quell the spread while recognizing the need to keep the country’s economy open and to accommodate its celebrated vibrant lifestyle.

Consider these facts:

  • Italy has a fully vaccinated rate of 75.7% over all age ranges, compared to 57.3% in North Carolina. More than 86% of those 12 and over in Italy have been vaccinated, and some 15% of children aged five to eleven have received their first vaccine.
  • In Italy, everyone must wear a mask inside and outside.  Except in private homes.  With very few exceptions, the vast majority of people we saw in Italy wore masks.  Sadly, the few who didn’t that I overheard speaking tended to be young and American.
  • Entry to Italian public transport and public buildings requires wearing N95 or equivalent masks, not cloth masks. This requirement was uniformly enforced on the trains we rode to Bologna and Milan.  Our CDC is finally warming up to this notion.
  • And, just as most countries do these days, Italy requires a negative Covid test within 72 hours of flying in from overseas.

While the list of hurdles can seem daunting on its face, we were able to comply without much trouble. While in Italy, our experience was the requirements were cheerfully met. Routinely masked and fully vaccinated, Italians are going about their lives with their usual joy and verve. Meanwhile, here in the U.S. plenty of unvaccinated Americans dither, and some of my fellow citizens openly scoff at those of us who wear masks even inside places of business, let alone while outside.

The reward while visiting Italy for adhering to these reasonable and easy rules is to enjoy life again much as before the pandemic!  Something the Italians excel at doing—better even than the French, in my opinion—and effortlessly.  Following are my real-time notes and photos of our first day (December 26th) in Rome, with more to come in ensuing posts.

It’s rainy but warm-ish here in Rome this Sunday afternoon. We checked into the fabulous apartment (above picture) in Largo Argentina: three bedrooms, three full baths, and an eye-popping view directly into the forum where Julius Ceasar was murdered in 44 B.C. (photo below). That’s just like yesterday for Rome.

The pictures don’t do this place justice. It is decadent, fit for royalty. Makes me wonder what we are doing here. We are stunned by its beauty, luxury decor, and premier location.

Off for an espresso in the piazza to keep us awake until our 3:00 PM meal at Enoteca Cul de Sac.

We managed to stay awake despite jetlag to dine at Enoteca Cul de Sac as planned at 300p. The apartment is ideally located, central to everything for walking. It took just seven minutes to get to the enoteca. The photo just above is of the Largo Argentina where Ceasar was killed, looking back at our penthouse flat in the yellowish building on the left. That’s our terrace on the far end.

The photo just above is the Enoteca Cul de Sac. The wine was excellent and the food scrumptious. I had duck ravioli (below). We shared one serving of Cul de Sac’s signature chocolate mousse with whipped cream to cap the dining experience. I sheepishly admit that I didn’t feel much guilt for those we left behind back in the USA.

After stuffing ourselves, we strolled for two hours to walk off the food and wine and to get some exercise after the long plane ride.

First a walk through the beautiful Piazza Navona (above) after leaving Enoteca Cul de Sac. Navona and its famous fountain are mere steps away from Cul de Sac.

Only a five-minute walk from our apartment to the Pantheon, breathtaking any time of the day or night, but particularly haunting at dusk.

Commissioned and built in the first and second centuries A.D., the Pantheon is a masterpiece of design and ancient construction.

Then on to the nearby Column of Marcus Aurelius, completed just before 200 A.D.

From there we strolled along the Via del Corso, Rome’s main Street, admiring the Rome-themed Christmas lights and the big Christmas tree at the well-known “Wedding Cake” memorial to the unification of Italy (built 1885). Ruins of the ancient Roman Forum begin just behind the memorial.

The photo below was taken from the terrace of our apartment looking down into the ruins of the Curia of Pompei where on the Ides of March (March 15) in 44 B.C. Julius Ceasar was stabbed to death, assassinated by Senators bent on restoring the Roman Republic (it didn’t happen; the Republic was dead and followed by Imperial Rome).

Wow, we only arrived at ten this morning, and it looks like we have seen much of Rome already! Guess we can go home now.

Nah, that’s not for another nine days.

Delta to Rome on Christmas night

January 4, 2022

Seven or eight months ago, I snagged a special deal on Delta during the period when international flights had few riders due to Covid: Low award travel seats in Comfort+ Raleigh to Rome leaving on Christmas. I immediately snagged four seats going over for me, my wife, and our two adult children without being certain of the return date. 

It took some scrounging on the Delta website to find days and flights coming home that matched the low mileage award seat offer, but I located four such seats returning from Milan on January 4 and grabbed them.

I noticed about 10 days later that those low, low overseas award travel deals on Delta were gone, so my timing was good. I’d been looking for seats to Rome to accept an invitation from Joe Brancatelli to show us the real Rome he has come to know and love in twenty-plus years of visits.  I was thrilled to find a bargain means of flying to make the trip possible.

Thus began the most memorable trip I’ve ever made to Italy, and I’ve been going fairly regularly since 1973.  I’ll be describing the trip day by day, and fabulous experience by experience, in coming posts.  This report covers getting there on Christmas night.  Here are my real-time notes and photos:

December 25, 2021

1:15 PM – Arrived RDU airport, which appears very busy.  The RDU Delta SkyClub staff said we are lucky to be flying to Rome through ATL because the JFK/FCO flight has already been canceled.

Otherwise, only one cancellation notice on the departure board, ATL leaving here at 755pm. Given all the news about Omicron-related flight cancellations, I am surprised it isn’t more. 

1:59 PM – Successful at standing by for an earlier RDU/ATL departure leaving at 159pm, although we are in rows 37 and 38 (very rear of the plane). No matter. Always better to get to a connecting point earlier, and our original 350pm flight was already showing a creeping delay. 

2:41 PM – En route to Atlanta, a 1 hr 15 min flight I’ve made a hundred times at least, the beverage cart came to row 38 with a choice of only water or coffee. I asked why no other choices. “So short a flight” was the canned answer. Funny, but I used to be served a full tray meal on these Delta flights between Raleigh and Atlanta even in coach in the 80s and 90s. Again, no matter. It was pleasant not to be rushed, and we arrived in Atlanta with almost four hours to connect.

4:46 PM – In the Delta SkyClub in the E (international) Concourse of the ATL Airport waiting for our 725p flight to Rome.  Busy, but not overcrowded.  Good food and even real Champagne on offer. Special Christmas cupcakes, too.  We are filling up here in anticipation of not getting equivalent quantity or quality in our Comfort+ seats on Delta to Rome. I didn’t pay much in miles for these awards seats because I got them at a huge bargain about 7 months ago.

Delta’s app now teases me with an offer to upgrade to business class one way to Rome for $3202 extra per person, a mere $12,800 for the four of us. Needless to say, I declined the offer. We can drink Champagne and eat pretty well here in the SkyClub for zero extra dollars and will arrive in Rome tomorrow sated and ready to go.

Besides which, I have 300p reservations for the four of us at Rome’s superb Enoteca Cul de Sac tomorrow, Dec 26. The memory of their food and wine makes my mouth water!

5:06 PM – Delta ATL/LHR is canceled tonight, but ATL/JNB is boarding now.

5:55 PM – Someone asked how we will get tested for Covid returning to the States 24 hours before our flight.  In anticipation of that problem, I brought 8 Abbott tests with me. 

Outbound, it was tedious to jump through all the hoops to be able to fly to Rome.  All four of us got PCR-tested by Wake County (where Raleigh is located), which I had to upload along with photos of our CDC vaccination cards.  I also had to complete and upload a long contact tracing form required by some EU countries, including Italy.  Although the Delta website proclaimed the various uploads were successful (through a 3rd party vendor), I brought along hard copies of all the documents with me, just in case.

7:00 PM – We are on board in Comfort+ in much-coveted bulkhead seats right behind Business Class.. Flight DL64 ATL/FCO seems to be mostly full. I was happily surprised that all the pre-work I did the last few days to upload the several forms and test results through the Delta portal paid off at the gate. We were just waved on board with no tedious document checks. Next stop, hopefully, Roma!

December 26, 2021

10:29 AM – Flight report: The advantage of bulkhead seats is lots of extra legroom and no one leaning a seat back into your personal space. The downside is being adjacent to the galley, certain to be lit throughout the flight. Flight attendants also tend to congregate and yap there.

Our cabin crew was especially galley-chatty overnight, perhaps because it was Christmas. Still and all, I managed to sleep for several hours of the nearly nine-hour flight; on-board rest is important for me to survive the first day. A lifetime of travel worldwide has taught me that the relatively short six-hour time difference to Europe from the U.S. East Coast kicks my backside with jetlag like no other international journey.

Comfort+ passengers were given big pillows, thin blankets, eyeshades, earplugs, and a toothbrush. The plane was freezing, causing me to mummify inside the blanket all night. The eyeshades came in handy to block the galley light for sleeping. I watched one movie before turning in. The seats are pretty comfortable despite being narrow.

Dinner and drinks came quickly after takeoff last night. Two choices: some sort of Indian-style chicken, or a cheese ravioli. My wife and I had one of each. Both came with a small salad weirdly crammed into a plastic cup. Both entrees were typically bland, made slightly more palatable by a well-chilled, tasty prosecco. I pre-ordered a vegan meal for our daughter, which she seemed to enjoy. The meal service was as expected for economy class: just better than minimal.

Flight attendants made rounds during the flight with orange juice and water.

A small but filling breakfast consisting of hot egg and cheese on an English muffin and a fruit cup was served 75 minutes before landing. I was surprised at, and appreciative of, the second meal service.

The purser and the lead flight attendant came round individually to speak to me before we left Atlanta.  Each brought a handwritten personal note thanking me for my five and one-half million miles of Delta flying.  The FA also brought me a small bag with five premium liquor mini-bottles—a nice surprise—and a Chinese brass incense burner.  It was a kind gesture, which I greatly appreciated. I would have appreciated even more being upgraded to business class, but that didn’t happen.

We arrived 15 minutes early to weather in the high 50s Fahrenheit and intermittent showers. More later as we reach the city.  The plane has parked at the gate, and the door is about to open.

+++ End of real-time notes. +++

Next time I’ll describe our spectacular Roman apartment overlooking the Largo Argentina where Julius Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C.

A surfeit of travel uncertainty

December 14, 2021

Could just be me over-reacting, but a pall of existential uncertainty seems to hang over these Covid times like an inversion layer of air pollution. Personal examples follow.

What’s in a name?

After 9/11, a lot. Nowadays, it feels like even more.

Over the weekend I heard from a friend who is about to apply for TSA Global Entry/Pre-check credentials.  He wanted to know whether he should include his middle name.  I advised that he should use his passport name precisely even if that name doesn’t exactly match what’s on his birth certificate. Since 9/11, I explained, one’s name in the government database must equal all other name identifiers for travel.

Not as easy as it sounds.  My full name is William Anderson Allen III.  The suffix “III” is what databases commonly trip over.  Sometimes, it’s the lack of a comma between “Allen” and “III” that causes confusion, especially when using legacy systems speaking to TSA systems. 

Usually, I go by simply Will Allen, and sometimes Will Allen III. But not at the airports of the world, not even for domestic travel.  In airline frequent flyer program databases I am variously known as Will Allen; Will Allen III; Will Allen, III; Will A. Allen; Will A Allen; William Allen; William A. Allen; W. A. Allen III; and so on, ad infinitum.  It’s maddening that we are twenty years past 9/11, and the airline computers will still not change my name to exactly what’s on my passport. 

Thus, the American AAdvantage program which I joined in 1981—two decades before 9/11—shows my name as William A. Allen, and AA stubbornly refuses to spell out my middle name and to add the “III” suffix.  That little glitch kicks out my name as a potential threat most times I try to check in online at AA.com, forcing me to show my face to a counter agent at the airport.

But not every time, and the uncertainty is maddening.  I never know if I’ll be able to check-in for an American flight.  Doesn’t appear to matter whether it’s a domestic or international itinerary.

Ditto for using my AAdvantage number for partner airlines like JetBlue and Qatar.  If I have used my passport name (as I must) to book flights on Qatar Airways, then their system thinks my AAdvantage number is wrong because the AA name isn’t exactly like the one in their PNR.  And therefore I often don’t get credit for the partner miles.

Not just American, either.  I had a similar issue with United a few months ago flying from Raleigh to Newark.  The counter agent shook her head and said it happens pretty often. 

Delta’s system has my correct passport name, and yet even then some snag related to my names prevents me from checking in online. 

I’m not feeling any airline love these days

In previous posts, I’ve justifiably moaned and griped about United Airlines’ shoddy performance on two itineraries RDU to Johannesburg in the summer and fall.  United was exceptionally annoying in canceling my RDU/EWR flight in July and left no options, then refused to acknowledge it, promised to refund my domestic first-class upgrade fee of $63, and never did.  That and the bare minimum of supposedly deluxe Polaris business class service for 14 hours to Johannesburg and back were exasperating.

At least UA recently reopened the Newark Polaris Lounge, but for over a year, the airline forced Polaris customers—its best and most loyal flyers—into the dismal, over-crowded United Club, a very long walk from its Newark international gates. 

Why did I fly subject myself to United wretchedness?  Uncertainty.  Delta sky-high fares and Delta’s on-again, off-again service between the USA and South Africa were, Delta told me, due to Covid.  Since Delta couldn’t be sure when their suspended ATL/JNB service would restart, I booked three United itineraries.  I felt fortunate to find a bargain business class fare, too, until I survived the first round trip and realized I didn’t get the value I paid for, not even for a low price. More uncertainty, not to mention irony.

Delta’s high fares to Johannesburg earlier this year which had pushed me to the godawful United flights seemed to have dropped for late February and early March when I’m flying back for my third trip (since July) to South Africa’s astonishing Kruger National Park. I checked yesterday and found the nonstop flights were $1600 in Premium Economy and $3005 in Delta One from RDU.  Double-checked today and found the same flights are now priced at $2559 and $7161.  Uncertainty strikes again.

I can go some places overseas

But I must choose carefully. Not everywhere I’d like to go (e.g., Morocco, Japan, China, Bhutan).

The Washington Post says the Omicron variant is shredding our travel plans.  Reasons for the misery include tough international travel testing regimens both leaving and returning; airlines insisting upon issuing credits rather than refunds for cancellations; local restrictions suddenly shutting down public places, potentially even alcohol sales (South Africa); and unknown Omicron infection rates.

Since uncertainty rules, I am a travel opportunist.  Do I normally go three times in the space of twelve months to South Africa?  No.  But South Africa has remained open to tourists despite the challenges of dealing with Covid.  I took a friend in July and August, and my wife accompanied me in November to the Kruger.  I am taking four more friends in February-March for that third Kruger trip unless stopped by new Covid roadblocks.

Can’t go to England without surmounting a steep wall of restrictions, but Italy is open as long as I get a PCR test in advance, show my vax card, and wear a mask everywhere. Then get tested 24 hours in advance to satisfy the CDC before returning home. So, yes!  I am taking my family of four to Rome, Bologna, and Milan this month unless the cafes, restaurants, and public places suddenly close.  A marvelous Roman penthouse awaits, overlooking the Largo Argentina where Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March, 44 BCE.

While in Rome—if the Fates allow (uncertainty again)—we will enjoy the spectacular cuisine, including my favorite lunch haunt, the Enoteca Cul de Sac.  I’ll also make a trip to Harry’s Bar wearing my International Bar Fly (IBF) pin, shown here:

This IBF pin was awarded to me at Harry’s New York Bar in Munich in 1976 where I had become a regular patron in ’75 and ’76. Hard to believe it was nearly a half century ago. It seems like yesterday.  In 2009 Chris Barnett wrote fondly about Harry’s in Rome. Word is, Harry’s continues to excel. I’ve been practicing my IBF code words to fellow bar flies: “Bzzzt, bzzzt!”  Seriously.

I’m hopeful, but realistic.  I can’t know for certain until we get there.

Better to be lucky than good

November 30, 2021

My wife and I spent a night and a day in Johannesburg en route to and from South Africa’s Kruger National Park between November 1 and 15. Several friends reached out over the Thanksgiving holidays applauding how smart I was to schedule two weeks in South Africa between the tail end of the Delta variant surge and the looming Omicron variant. In reply to my friends’ praise, I unabashedly owned up to the truth: The timing had nothing to do with cleverness, only luck.

Yep, just luck.  But I’ll take it.  Especially in Covid times.

Lefty Gomez, an all-star pitcher for the New York Yankees in the 1930s, is credited with saying: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”  Mr. Gomez was spot on.  Having been at travel planning since the age of thirteen, I am really good at it and enjoy the task as much now as ever.  Successful trip planning, though, even with sixty years of practice, is founded upon known deadlines, confirmed bookings, and foreseeable risks. The Covid-19 pandemic has made folly of predictability and has all but trashed the value of my expertise.

My wife and I have been back from South Africa two weeks today after flying out of Johannesburg the night of November 15. Of course, we had to be tested and found to be negative before being allowed on the plane coming to the USA.  We’ve felt fine since getting home.

But then I read that Omicron infections were identified as early as November 11 when we were still in South Africa.  Meaning the variant was certainly present during our visit.  Just to be sure, then, we both went for PCR tests yesterday, and we each received results by nightfall: “NOT DETECTED.” Which means “negative” in the careful legal parlance of Covid testing laboratories.   

With more and more Covid variants rising, I feel like a castaway in a sea of travel uncertainty, clinging to the driftwood maxim that indeed it’s better to be lucky than good. So, yeah, I’ll take that lucky Covid sandwich of a South African trip, neatly nestled between Delta and Omicron variants.

Lady Luck doesn’t always smile on my trips, to be sure.  An upcoming week in Italy over the Christmas holidays has become uncertain because of the Omicron unknowns. If the Italians close up restaurants, cafes, shops, and public places again, then why go?  We have very fine accommodation lined up, including a rented penthouse apartment overlooking a prominent Roman piazza with a sweeping panoramic view of the ancient city.  But a snazzy place to sleep isn’t the high point of Rome or anywhere in the country.  It’s the scrumptious food, the gorgeous places, the fascinating history, the spectacular wine, and most of all, the good company: relishing life among the ever-ebullient Italian people. 

The French pursue joie de vivre, yet it’s the Italians who have perfected it in every moment. That effervescent lifestyle is why I love going back to Italy. Having to socially distance would moot the principal fun of the trip, thanks again to Covid dashing that most precious element of life among the Italians: ordinary, everyday human interaction. 

Perhaps my worry is for naught; Italy is open for the moment. Maybe we’ll get lucky again.

Another example of not-so-good fortune: The new variant has caused Morocco to snap shut again.  My wife and I had planned a grand exploration of Morocco to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary in the summer of 2020.  I’d already bought Delta and Air France tickets in business class and was about to plunk down for accommodation when Morocco closed the first time.  Covid made mincemeat of our extensive planning. A silver lining of luck showed through in one respect: Delta canceled all flights to Morocco, thus requiring the airline to fully refund my money rather than issue an e-credit.  But we still could not go, and now we still cannot re-plan a trip to that exotic land.  I guess I can watch the 1942 Bob Hope-Bing Crosby comedy classic “The Road to Morocco” although I won’t learn much about the country or its people from the film.

Lastly, I have another trip planned to South Africa’s Kruger National Park in late February 2022 accompanying four friends who have never been there.  After months of long and careful planning to integrate every person’s particular travel needs, air schedules and Kruger accommodation are all set and paid for.  But with Omicron looming, who knows?  I can only hope we get a lucky break, as my wife and I did in early November.

I also hope Omicron won’t break through the vaccines.  In which case I won’t have to worry about fickle luck interfering with trip planning, as I probably won’t be flying anywhere for some time. Heck, if that happens, maybe not even going to get my hair cut.

As it is, stringent new CDC negative test requirements before flying home from overseas (24 hours rather than 3 days) seem imminent. Although I don’t think absolute health can be guaranteed with any test because the virus can be incubating and elude a test even 24 hours in advance.

Or even a day-of-travel test, if one was possible. A test is just a risk reducer. The only near-certainty is to do what Morocco, Israel, China, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have done: close the borders to everyone from everywhere. And then mandate 100% vaccination compliance to the population. 

Even then unexplained cases will occur. Testing requirements are a poor sub for closed borders if your desire is really to stop the spread. 

But I’m glad most places remain open for now. Especially Italy. Maybe I’ll get lucky again and spend New Year’s Eve in Rome!

The new reality of getting home from overseas

November 18, 2021

On November 16 my wife and I arrived home in Raleigh after a spectacular two week trip through the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  The tedious process of getting home began four days earlier on November 12 and required a lot of my time and attention to be sure it was done right. 

Covid has added a lot of complexity to international travel for returning Americans, requirements that add cost and steal time from a trip.  I fear the non-value-adding activities may be here to stay, counterbalanced somewhat by airline software improvements and Internet-based remote testing solutions.  I wrote about successful remote testing on my previous Kruger visit in August.

I’ve been making trips to South Africa for nearly 31 years. Before Covid, getting home was so perfunctory that I can’t remember any significant hurdles on the return journeys, regardless of my international air carrier.  Now, though, I have to focus and plan carefully.

Starting with the remote testing.  In August it was just me, but this time two of us needed to go through the remote Emed/Navica testing process.  I took four of the Abbott/Binax test kits with me (two for backups “just in case”).  First, I consulted carefully with the United Airlines “Travel Ready Center” portal to be dead certain of requirements. 

Going over the pond, a PCR test was mandatory per South Africa, and it had be within exactly 72 hours of flight time, not just of the departure date, in our case 9:00 PM on October 31. Thus, our negative test results had to be dated not sooner than 9:00 PM on October 28. Since it’s not possible to be tested at that late hour of any day, we had to wait until the morning of October 29 to go for our PCR tests.

Coming home, United follows the looser CDC guideline that Covid test results, which can be antigen or PCR, must be dated within three days of the flight date.  Our flight departure was scheduled for 10:00 PM on November 15, and per the CDC rule, our negative test results could be any time on November 12 or later.  Checking United’s Travel Ready Center confirmed this, so we targeted the morning of November 12 to go through the remote testing routine. 

Coincidentally, we were at the same Kruger Park camp, Satara, that I reported from before.  Since it worked well there, I expected similar smooth sailing.

I went first, signed into the Navica app, which took me to Emed.com, and went through the test process.  Just as I wrote about in July, a bit slow with a weak Internet signal through my smartphone, and within 45 minutes, done.  Tested negative, and soon had my official report, ready to be uploaded to United.

My wife then began the same process and was repeatedly kicked off the Emed Labs site due to video freezes and connection problems.  But it finally worked after 3+ hours of frustrating repeated tries. By then our morning of planned game drives was shot. Good news was both tests negative.

It then took three tries for United Airlines to acknowledge and approve uploads of our negative Covid tests and vax cards (the latter a new U.S. government requirement, effective November 8), which paved the way for our flight home the night of November 15. The anxiety of being rejected twice before final approval may be common these days as Covid-related requirements for international travel are both fluid and unique country by country. United, not my favorite airline, has admittedly done a good job of adapting to those complexities. For those of us who seek to travel between countries, however, meeting the requirements is no fun in addition to being a costly time sink.

Our actual flights home began with the short hop from Skukuza to Johannesburg on the private, perennially profitable, well-run carrier, SA AIRLINK, not to be confused with government-run and chronic money-loser, SAA (South African Airways).  Airlink is a plucky airline with a well-known sunbird logo on the tail of their planes.

SA Airlink fares are reasonable, too. What I didn’t expect was for Airlink to field a world-class, easy-to-use online check-in process.  I was pleasantly surprised the previous night (November 14) to get an email for checking in on November 15. Done in less than a minute. The tiny Airlink desk at tiny Skukuza Airport quickly handed over our boarding passes when I produced the confirmation. Super easy.

United Airlines also sent an electronic check-in message to my email the night of November 14 which I completed that morning at 400am as we prepared for our game drive. It was a more mind-numbing, even tortured, process than Airlink’s, and took me all of 12 minutes to complete. Reason being, UA is now asking for all kinds of new information related to Covid.

That said, it was hard to find fault with the necessary complexity, and at the end, United produced e-boarding passes for both my wife and me. The United website didn’t do quite that well for me in August, and I wondered if those e-docs would be enough for me to bypass the check-in counter at Johannesburg.

The Airlink flight was a fast and on-time 50 minutes Skukuza to Johannesburg on an ERJ.  Despite the short duration, the flight attendant offered beverages (including beer and wine) and sandwiches, a nice touch.

Arriving Johannesburg on November 15, we decided to try to go straight through, bypassing the check-in counter. We had zero checked luggage, so we found the security screen for Terminal A where United departs, completed the requisite Covid-19 tracing form, and used the boarding passes on my phone to run the security and immigration gauntlet.

Worked like a charm. We had arrived at the domestic terminal from our SA Airlink flight at 230pm, and we were inside security at the international terminal by 330pm.

Sure, that’s common in America for domestic flights, but for a Johannesburg-Newark flight in the fluidly complicated Covid era, I was amazed. Chalk up one for United in enabling our breeze through security and immigration. That’s the easiest experience I’ve had here in 30 years of flying out of Jo’burg.

Once in, Ruth and I made a beeline for the SLOW Lounge that United used in August for business class. But United has moved, I discovered, to the old SAA (South African Airways) Lounge. SAA, now defunct but supposedly being reconstituted by the government, was/is a Star Alliance partner, so I guess moving made sense.

We therefore traipsed down the corridor to the SAA Lounge and were welcomed in. It’s still divided the way it always was between First Class and Business Class sides, but there aren’t any international First Class passengers these days because almost no airline still fields a real international First Class cabin. Business Class has mostly replaced First Class, and that side was empty.

The larger Business Class side of the lounge slowly filled up as the afternoon turned to evening, and I noticed it seemed far more spacious than the SLOW Lounge it replaced. We took showers in the lounge and put on clean clothes for the long flight home tonight. Afterwards, enjoyed pretty good fare from the food offerings and sampled the local gin (very good). Staff was plentiful and attentive, and they were all gracious, eager to serve.  Lots of private nooks and crannies, free wifi, and electric outlets to charge our phones, too.

While enjoying the absence of stress, my phone beeped with a check-in email from Delta Airlines for our flight the following morning (November 16) Newark to Raleigh. After the terrible experiences Jeff Murison and I had on United in July and August, I booked away from United going home just as I did flying JetBlue to Newark two weeks ago. Checking in on the Delta flight took less than a minute, so we were ready to go as long as United got us to Newark on time.

United Airlines UA187 nonstop from Johannesburg to Newark left the gate at November 15, early by 10 minutes, and landed about 10 minutes early (just before 700am on November 16) at Newark after 14.5 hours in the air. I was delighted that the flight was on time, our first OT experience with United.

Service on board the United long-haul flight was perfunctory and minimalist, just as it was going over. A tasteless fish dish with a blue plastic glass of lukewarm champagne was dropped on my business class table all at once on a plastic tray. I didn’t eat or drink much of it. I had to ask for the dessert, which the flight attendants admitted to me they forgot: a tiny container of Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream partially melted by the time it reached me.The cabin crew mostly disappeared for 12 hours after clearing the trays until serving another tray of breakfast about an hour before landing. I was asked if I preferred “French toast or eggs” without explanation of how the eggs were prepared. At least I had a choice sitting in row 1. By the time my wife was served in row 3, only eggs were available.

This was my fourth flight in business class on the United nonstops to and from Johannesburg since late July, and service has been about the same on all four: forgettable. The seats lie flat for sleeping, and that’s the only meaningful service difference.  Thankfully, I was able to get a rock bottom business class fare.

It was a bargain, I guess. But I think United should be offering its premium Polaris cabin passengers more.  On the plus side—a big plus these days—UA has excellent software for complying with the labyrinthine regulations of getting home from overseas.

We were off the UA plane by 700am and whisked through Immigration and Customs, thanks to our Global Entry membership. Just takes a photo of our faces and done. No passport presented or stamped.

By 722am on November 16 we had passed through Terminal B security to reach the Delta gates for our flight to RDU and were ensconced in the Delta SkyClub to wait. Pretty good for an international arrival to a domestic connection at any airport, but especially at Newark, which has a bad rep for service, regardless of airline. Arriving early morning, of course, accounts for some of the ease.

The Delta flight to Raleigh/Durham left at 10:00 AM on time and arrived 30 minutes early after 60 minutes.  I’d booked us in first class using award tickets (way in advance, so the mileage requirement was low), and it was a comfortable flight with food and drink offered, just as on SA Airlink the day before.  Kudos to both SA Airlink and Delta for providing great domestic short-haul service, quite a contrast to the unexceptional United Polaris cabin service on one of the longest flights on earth.

Altogether, the user software employed by all three airlines, plus the Emed Labs’ CDC-approved remote testing software and the lightning-fast Global Entry kiosks, smoothed the complexity that has grown up around international travel for returning American citizens.  Some bumps still, but it all works routinely.  Knowing I can get home makes me confident that I can and will keep traveling abroad.

United Airlines delay misery redux

En route on United Airlines Flight 188 Newark to Johannesburg in business class on Halloween, these are my real-time notes:

Misery struck again leaving Newark, just as my trip on the same flight in July. We were held at EWR gate 121 “for cargo” for over an hour. Cockpit crew didn’t keep us posted very well, ultimately changing the story to blame our late pushback (75 minutes behind schedule) on alleyway congestion.

Scheduled departure 945pm. Pushed back at 1059pm. Finally off the ground at 1132pm. As we lifted off, I realized that was 12 hours after leaving my house to drive to RDU. Long day already, and a 14.5 hour flight still ahead.

UA188 was scheduled to arrive Johannesburg at 620pm local, now looks closer to 730pm even with favorable tailwinds. Which means the poor folks booked on the return leg JNB/EWR that will use this aircraft will likely also be late arriving back to Newark.

This nonstop flight travels 8,000 miles, an impressive feat. Boeing 787-9 technology has tooled a comfortable cabin in all three classes. I walked back to Premium Economy to try out the seats while waiting at Newark and found them to feel spacious and private in width and in front-to-back separation.

The cabin crew didn’t seem to care about the galling delay and gabbed in the front galley like middle schoolers. I wish they’d at least pretended to concern. Misery, after all, loves company.

Just as in July, despite the late departure, no boarding Champagne, or even a Coca-Cola while waiting. Only a bottle of water handed out when the flight attendants came for our meal and drink order.

I was asked if I wanted “beef, chicken, or pasta” with no elucidation of how each was prepared or what accompanied the entree. When I asked, the flight attendant said only, “I hear the beef is good.”

I gave up hoping for any kind of an explanation and ordered beef and Champagne.

About 45 minutes after becoming airborne, dinner was tray-served all at once, including gelato for dessert, which naturally melted into a coolish goo before the hot food was consumed. I left mine. Nothing whatsoever elegant about the service or presentation. I’ve had better service in coach on other airlines, and even in cafeterias.

My Champagne came in a blue plastic cup in the middle of the tray adjacent to the hot dish. Like the gelato, the Champagne suffered from proximity to heat and was undrinkable. At least I had enjoyed Piper Heidsieck rose hours earlier in the United Club. I did like the tasty braised beef tenderloin and rice, however. Unlike the carrots and broccoli, which were the consistency of shoe leather. The salad was limp and tasteless.

After the trays were cleared, the flight attendants mostly vanished, leaving big bottles of water and small bags of potato chips for self-service in the galley area for the next 10 hours. As we approached southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa), breakfast trays were unpacked and heated. Odd, I thought, that we get breakfast just before landing at dinner time.

The cabin crew seemed to mostly act perfunctorily in their tasks. Except for one friendly flight attendant from Atlanta, the FAs exhibited little warmth and few smiles. The attitude seemed to be: just get the job done. Not even a hint of acknowledgment that United’s vaunted Polaris service was more than window dressing.

Well, really, “Polaris” isn’t much beyond the narrow lie-flat seats in business class. Heck, United won’t even reopen its Polaris Lounge at Newark, forcing Polaris customers to cram into the tired, overcrowded United Club near gate 82 or 84.

All in all, another poor performance by United, both operationally and service-wise. I fly home on November 15th, and I’m booked on one more United round trip in business class in February and March. This flight serves its purpose of getting me there and back (though not on time), but paying for business class, even at the deep discount bargain fare I snagged, isn’t worth it. If there is a next flight on United beyond March, I’ll aim for Premium Economy, enjoy the relative comfort of the PE seats, and not expect any service.

All United Airlines grousing aside, I’m jazzed to be almost back in South Africa! Tomorrow morning I’ll fly the short hop (50 minutes) from Johannesburg to Skukuza in the Kruger National Park. I can hardly wait. After clearing immigration and customs, I’ll walk over to the City Lodge Hotel situated in the airport parking structure to lay my head tonight. I’d be there a lot earlier if this flight was on time.

The high price of the great American road trip in 2021

October 20, 2021

In the fable of Goldilocks, the young girl found a place in the home of the hapless three bears to lay her head that was “just right.”  That hasn’t happened to me in the real world in recent weeks.  I’ve slept in three inns of highly different styles and experiences, yet not one was perfect.  Each had its upsides and negatives.  But all were expensive for what they were.

Which first begs the question: What is my “ideal” in a hostelry?  For me these days, it’s a combination of factors:

  • Safe and secure
  • Reasonable value
  • Attractive and well-maintained condition and appointments inside and out
  • Competent, friendly staff
  • A quiet room in all respects, including HVAC
  • Comfortable, firm beds
  • Good quality sheets and towels
  • Heat and air system that maintains set temp within a small range
  • Good water pressure and plenty of hot water
  • High speed Wi-Fi
  • Complimentary hot breakfast
  • Flat-screen TV with cable
  • Complimentary parking
  • Room service
  • Interesting bar and restaurant

Looking at my list, it seems more basic than ideal, but I’ve cut back on my expectations over the years.  No longer do I look for a Wall Street Journal to be left outside my door, and forget about a concierge lounge.  And certainly not a complimentary shine when leaving my shoes outside my door.  Heck, I don’t even ask for a wake-up call these days, preferring the alarm on my smartphone.  So these are my impressions written from notes after staying in each inn over the past few weeks:

Sewanee Inn in Sewanee, TN

Last night stayed at the swish Sewanee Inn. This picture says it all about the place and its pretensions:

Not pleased that the room was the one closest to the highway.  Soundproofing was adequate, but the headlights were annoying.  And proximity to any road ruins the ambiance.

Chronic loud voices from tipsy neighbors lolling in the hallway disturbed my late night slumbers until my call to security had the desired effect. 

The restaurant was pretty good, and the bar was cozy and well-stocked.  I do love a good bar.  Sadly, classy hotel bars are disappearing faster than ice in the arctic.

I didn’t know Sofia Copola produced a branded California bubbly, but when I saw it on the menu at dinner, I ordered a glass. Curious why it was sold only by the glass and not the bottle. I found out when it was delivered in a can (photo).  Champagne in a can can’t be good, I thought.  Big surprise that it was tasty. Price: $8.05 for 375 ml.  Not cheap, but, hey, the Sewanee Inn is a stylish joint.

The complimentary continental breakfast choices were few, and the pastries looked far better than the flavor response on my tongue. After tasting one of everything, I threw it all in the garbage except the packaged yogurt and went to McDonald’s.

Cranky folks at the front desk, which is a real desk with chairs set up, making it awkward to sign in.  I noticed a real management attitude problem towards the housekeeping staff when I asked for soap.

Price, not including dinner: $192.

Verdict: The same concrete blocks as the Red Roof Inn (see next), but concealed by a heavy veneer of conceit.  Too expensive for the product, though I did love the bar.

Red Roof Inn in Monteagle, TN

Seedy and rundown in appearance and in fact.  No pretensions here: unapologetic tired old cinder blocks in need of painting.

Smokey rooms. Had to do room inspections of five or six before finding one that didn’t reek of cigarettes. And those were the ones management swore were “no smoking” rooms. I’d hate to have experienced a “smoking” unit.

I was told up front: no breakfast. I appreciated the candor.  Again, no highfaluting airs.

The only non-smoking room faced the highway.  If I was any closer to the Interstate, I’d have been on it, as evident in this photo:

Staff at odds with other staff: the heavyset owner/manager from Northern India versus the fleshy, tattooed chief housekeeper from South Georgia.  Observing, I’d call it a draw.  Both were nice to me.

A cacophony of drunken laughter and cackling in hoarse, tobacco-ruined voices on the open balcony late at night abated after a spell.  Good thing, as I had no option to phone security at this property.  The working class drunks at the Red Roof Inn were as irritating as the better-dressed midnight inebriates romping down the hallowed halls at the Sewanee Inn.

Sheets and towels at the Sewanee Inn were plusher, but those at the Red Roof Inn were clean and adequate. 

Water pressure was excellent, a nice surprise.

HVAC did the job quietly despite being a typical aging hotel unit.

Truckers and folks driving cars with one headlight out were the norm here at Red Roof versus the more prosperous clientele at Sewanee Inn at the helm of big-ass Mercedes and hulking Yukons.

Price: $92

Verdict:  No bargain at $92: Ouch!  A dump?  No, but a noise hellhole.  Not to mention diesel fumes.

Comfort Inn in West Biltmore/Asheville, NC

A shocking $148 for a Monday night offended me. When I winced, the nice young lady up front happily intoned in her sing-song Appalachian twang, “We’ve been sold out every night in October!”

“Yeah, but there is NO FALL FOLIAGE yet to justify the high price,” I said.

Because for some reason this year most all the leaves are still green and on the trees in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains, foiling the autumn leaf peepers. 

She agreed, but my complaint fell on deaf ears. No rate relief.

Once inside, however, I realized this was the most comfortable and fancy Comfort Inn in my experience: Well-appointed and quiet room of good dimensions. Nice Panasonic flat-screen with oodles of channels. Four sets of big thirsty, fluffy bath, face, and hand towels. Two queens with lots of pillows, firm mattresses, and high quality bedding. Better soap and toiletries than contemporary Hamptons and Courtyards. Free hot breakfast.  Free parking.  Free fast Wi-Fi. A lobby area to relax in and watch TV.

Comfort Inn has upped their game when I wasn’t looking. The front desk manager even called me while still on the road to confirm my late arrival.

Price: $148

Verdict:  $148?   Really?  This isn’t Fort Lauderdale in April.  Nice place, but overpriced.  Comfort Inn used to be synonymous with value. 

Bottom line was that all three inns differed, but one common element stuck out:  Regardless of property booked, I cannot avoid the high price of the great American road trip in 2021.

Flying in 2021 sucks

October 13, 2021

This time last year I thought we’d be done with Covid-19 by now, shaking off the worst of it. I was looking forward to flying again around the world as countries recovered from the pandemic.  Sixty-one years after my first flight and millions upon millions of miles in the air later, I like to believe myself a canny prognosticator of the ups and downs on flying. 

But I crashed and burned on predicting today’s air travel realities.  The pandemic persists, and I’m as exhausted as anyone after hunkering down for 18 months (and counting) of what feels like “house arrest” and damnable Zoom meetings.  Nonetheless, I am vaccinated—including the third booster—so I started flying again.  Trouble is, so did everyone else at the same time.  

Too bad for me that airline execs were caught their pants down. The gods of air carrier board rooms clearly were not prepared for robust demand striking up against severely downsized fleets and workforces like a freight train (to mix my metaphors).  Pick your reasons for why: can’t get planes in the air fast enough; reasonable, though unintentionally divisive, vaccination mandates; employees scared of getting sick from Covid; furloughed staff unwilling to return for the same crummy wages and even worse working conditions.  All and more are probably contributory, yet no one cause is determinative.  At the same time, airline management folks are paid well to make smart, nimble decisions, and they failed us.  Anyway, knowing why doesn’t make it better:  Flying in late 2021 sucks.

How so?  Well, Southwest canceled thousands of flights last weekend and whined that the FAA did it (ATC problems) even though no other airline, governed by the same air traffic controllers, reported disruptions on that scale.

Southwest’s meltdown only partly explains scenes like this photo at Denver over the Columbus Day weekend, taken by a friend who was there:

And that wasn’t even the worst moment.  Later, travelers were backed up the stairs to queue on the mezzanine in the background.  You’d never guess we were still wallowing in a pandemic drawn out by politicizing medical science.

My own flying experiences of late echo such national news reports.  Not one of the four Delta flights I flew recently was tolerable, let alone pleasant. “Relaxing” was a pipedream. Every flight was oversold with zero empty seats. My family flew to the Midwest to attend my wife’s dad’s funeral and paid over $2,000 for four tickets in coach. Not to mention nearly $400 for a midsize rental car for 3 days.

The best I can say about Delta is that the end-to-end experience was not as bad as United or American. Thank goodness that my American Express Platinum Card, which each member of my family carries, allows entry to Delta SkyClubs when flying on Delta tickets.  The SkyClubs were welcome havens between sardine can flights. 

The gates weren’t even too bad since Delta has cracked the secrets of less-stressful boarding.  But the entire flying parts of the experience were uncomfortable and horribly cramped, made worse by the pervasive existential worry of getting Covid-19 and the 2021 habit of window-seat holders keeping the shades drawn gate-to-gate—a trend I ascribe to smartphone addiction nowadays.  Wearing masks airport-to-airport is an added wrinkle of chronic discomfort and oddly disconcerting, too.

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog I have often railed against bad service aboard airplanes. It’s disheartening that flying is not qualitatively better as we tick off the years of the third decade of the 21st century.  How about just a little relief from pain?

Remote Covid test uncertainty for returning citizens

October 5, 2021

Preparing this week for an international trip next month, I unexpectedly uncovered uncertainties concerning the future of the eMed/Navica (Abbott) remotely-proctored Covid test that worked so well and so easily for me from the African wilderness in August. This is the quick-results antigen test that United Airlines, Delta, and American have been touting as approved by the FDA and CDC for U.S. citizens returning home from overseas

To avoid confusion, I should point out that the test I’m describing is for Americans RETURNING from overseas. Here are the CDC Covid test guidelines for U.S. citizens coming home. Test requirements for GOING vary by country.

I first learned about the eMed/Abbott testing process directly from the United website.  Initially skeptical, I was won over by trouble-free, successful use while surrounded by African wildlife.  The simplicity of the test coupled to the eMed proctored process via smartphone relieved me of stress and avoided a great loss of time and money to utilize alternate test means.  After all, the eMed/Navica (Abbott) test kits costs just $30-35 each, which includes remote live proctoring; it can be done anywhere mobile or Wi-Fi service is available; and the test takes just 20-30 minutes.

By contrast, PCR testing requires finding and traveling to a lab or test site in a foreign country three days in advance of flying, and in South Africa costs $120 per person, which must be paid in cash. Some countries, including Italy and Greece, offer quick antigen tests like the eMed/Abbott process through pharmacies. But even those can be expensive. Last week a friend said a pharmacist came to his hotel on a Greek island to administer a simple antigen test and charged €80 ($92.50 at today’s rate).

Here is an Abbott article explaining how the eMed/Navica (Abbott) test kit works and pictures of which package is approved for returning citizens and which is not:

APPROVED FOR TRAVEL USE

NOT APPROVED FOR TRAVEL USE

United explains it here if you pull down the “Return flights back to the U.S.” tab on that page.

Two issues cloud future use: availability of tests and continued FDA approval.  I discovered both conundrums when ordering additional test kits for my November trip, enough for two people.  (Happily for me, my wife is going this time back to the Kruger Park in South Africa.)

Back in June, I ordered the initial two kits from Optum (see here) for use in August—two because eMed advises taking two kits per person in case one fails to yield a result or indicates a positive for Covid (some false positives do occur).  In either case, the backup kit would be used.

But I only needed one kit and thus brought the second one home from South Africa.  I noticed, though, that it had an expiration date of 10-03-21, which I assumed would void its acceptance when the time comes for me to be tested in November. That prompted me to order new Abbott kits from Optum.

Just as before, the test kits arrived quickly (in just three days) on October 4.  When I examined the boxes, however, I was perplexed to see the expiration dates all read 9-19-21.  In other words, the new kits had already expired.  Even more puzzling, the older kit I had bought in June had a newer expiration date (10-03-21) than the ones I just received.

Concerned that Optum had erred in shipping me out-of-date test kits, I phoned the company.  A very nice customer service person explained that FDA had extended the expiration dates of all the Abbott kits by three months, making the ones I just received good until 12-19-21.  Whew, good, I thought, that would cover my wife and me through our November trip to South Africa.

Suspicious that Optum was sending me old stock, I asked why they had not sent test kits with future expiration dates.  There was a long pause before the rep admitted they had no kits with future expiration dates, only kits that were already expired per the original date (now extended).  When would new kits be arriving? I queried.  I explained that I would need up to twelve more test kits for a family-and-friends trip to Italy in December, returning in early January, and then will require another ten or so kits for my next trip to South Africa’s Kruger National Park with four friends in Feb-Mar, 2022.

“We expect them soon,” was all she’d say. She wouldn’t give me a date, not even a speculative one.  I asked her to please kick me up to her manager, which eventually she did.  After a lengthy wait (I was multi-tasking and patient), the fellow who ran the order center came on.  He candidly confessed that stock nationwide was running low “because Abbott is behind in manufacturing” and Optum had no idea when or even if they would be getting more test kits. Hearing that, I was sure his reps had been instructed to not to volunteer such unhappy news, though I didn’t pin him down on it. 

Afterwards, I found this New York Times article which may partially explain the shortage.  I’ve also read that the proliferation of self-testing using the other Abbott test kit—the one depicted above that is not approved for travel—is causing shortages of the test kit that is approved for travel using the unique eMed remote proctoring procedure.

This was fairly alarming news, leading me to call eMed customer service next.  Maybe they would have more specific information about when I could obtain more test kits.  Soon I was connected to an articulate eMed rep in Cali, Columbia who extolled the virtues of his hometown of Medellin.  (Truth be told, I was quite interested.  I’ve been only to Bogota in Columbia, and his vivid descriptions made me yearn to see more of the country.)

When I then explained my enigma—that is, how to get more test kits—the representative confirmed that only Abbott knows when the travel kit version will be available.  “Anyway,” he said, “The big question is whether the test kits will be reapproved by the FDA beyond December for use at all.”

Are you referring to the expiration date extension? I asked, and the answer was no.  As we talked, he had emailed the eMed letter to me (below) confirming the extended okay for the expired tests.  “But,” he went on, “FDA also has to reapprove the kits, regardless of expiration date, for basic Covid test efficacy.  Blanket approval of the kits without respect to expirations is what really runs out at yearend.”

As the implications of what he told me sank in, my mood plummeted.  If the test kits themselves are not approved for use at all beyond December, it will make return testing from Italy in January and return testing from South Africa in March a big hassle, not to mention expensive.  I’ll have to find places that administer Covid tests that meet CDC rules, carve out time to get tested there three days before our flight home, and pay up to $120 per test. Ugh!

I thanked the man, and took note of his advice to “check back around the first of December” with eMed to see if FDA test kit approvals had been extended.  Of course I will do that, but the current bottom line is the eMed/Navica (Abbott) tests will work for us from South Africa in November, but not for anybody going anywhere after December.  Thus a looming problem for easy, convenient, and inexpensive Covid testing to travel home from abroad in 2022.

Flying drunk

September 28, 2021

Flying from Raleigh to Minneapolis last Thursday evening on Delta’s nonstop dinky CRJ900, I was seated across from a fellow who proceeded to get knee-walking drunk in just over two hours.

And I mean DEAD DRUNK!  Pick your synonym: In alphabetical order, the man was besotted, blind, blitzed, blotto, bombed, boozy, crocked, fried, gassed, hammered, inebriated, intoxicated, juiced, loaded, looped, oiled, pickled, pie-eyed, plastered, potted, ripped, sloshed, smashed, sottish, soused, sozzled, squiffed, stewed, stiff, stinking, stoned, tanked, tight, tipsy, or wasted.  He fit all those descriptors and more. It was an impressive achievement in so short a period.

I hadn’t witnessed such a meltdown at 30,000 feet in many years. At one time—in a more innocent era of flying—it wasn’t so uncommon to see someone get three sheets to the wind on a plane. No one really minded, and we all just went with it.  Let them cut loose and enjoy life!  I even did it myself once or twice way back in the eighties or nineties, once guzzling too much spectacular Bordeaux in good vintages on the BA Concorde to London. I wasn’t scolded for it, just hungover.

Not these days, however.  Since Covid hit, it’s become hard to get even a single serving of an alcoholic beverage on board, let alone a debauching quantity.  Drinking is discouraged after too many examples of abysmally stupid behavior by infrequent flyers ranting about some vague “freedom” guaranteeing their right not to wear a mask aboard aircraft and then getting duct-taped to their seats.

So how did this particular incident happen?  It began when I was upgraded to first class and assigned seat 1C across from the single seat 1A in the bulkhead row.  Here’s the way I described the unpleasant experience at the time:

Relieved to be upgraded and looking forward to decompressing, a drunk next to me ruined my flight.  The young man was 31 years old, he told me, slurring his words, going to Minneapolis for a weekend wedding. He somehow managed to pound down at least eight or nine drinks that I counted, given him in rapid succession by the lead Sky West CRJ900 flight attendant who should have cut him off after many fewer.

He was nearly incoherent before we began descent and kept demanding more drinks all the way to the gate. Got up several times while taxiing until I managed to get him seated again. His mask was hanging down around his neck because he was too unaware to notice.

It’s been a decades since I’ve seen a guy that drunk on a plane. In the narrow cabin he was in the single seat across from my aisle seat and mid-flight started physically touching me, patting and hitting my shoulder and wanting to repeatedly shake my hand and get his face real close to mine as he leaned over. I submitted and didn’t react negatively because he was way beyond reason, and I couldn’t risk a scene that would invariably involve the law–and me, not just him. So I played along and kept him calm and happy.

I jokingly commented that I hoped he had big bottle of aspirin.  He laughed and replied, yes, and that he intended to take plenty when he got to the hotel. 

Not driving, I hope?  Nope, he said, planning to get an Uber to wherever he was staying.  I wondered if he would even recall where that was.

All the time that the guy was physically touching me and leaning close into my personal space the flight attendants did nothing to stop him: no verbal warnings, no approaching us to separate him from me, nothing. I was real careful to keep my hands down, folded in my lap, lest my movements appear threatening. The lead FA stayed in her seat facing us, but said or did nothing.  It was entirely up to me to keep things calm, always tricky when dealing with someone detached from reason.  I didn’t like doing it.

I could see a fuse might get lit, but luckily avoided that happening. The FAs thanked me profusely when I left.  I don’t think they knew how to handle the situation, even though they’d enabled it. Think of the crude but vivid term “s**tfaced” to get the picture of the fellow.

Not relaxing for me at all. I had one drink right after takeoff and then switched to water because I didn’t want alcohol in my system should law enforcement get involved. I stayed stone sober to keep me and all aboard safe. In effect I did the flight attendants’ job. The guys in first class sitting behind me whispered thanks, too. They seemed as worried about the situation exploding as I was. We were lucky that the man was in good, as well as high, spirits.

So whose fault was it?  Sure, the fellow shouldered part of the blame by not exercising self-restraint.  But in my opinion it was principally the flight attendants who let this happen.  They should have cut him off way before he reached his state of unreason. 

What should be the on-board alcohol limit?  Two drinks seems to me not very generous, but eight or nine risks an ugly scene even for a hardened imbiber.  I don’t know what’s reasonable. I just know I don’t ever want a repeat of last Thursday night.

Another UA ordeal getting home from South Africa

September 15. 2021

Flying to South Africa proved to be an anxiety-ridden ordeal, thanks to United Airlines scuttling my flight from RDU to Newark, as I wrote about a couple of posts ago. Getting home was easier, though not without more hiccups caused by United.

As always, SA Airlink, the South African privately-owned regional carrier, provided dependable service from Skukuza to Johannesburg. But before I departed Skukuza Airport, I got a message from United Airlines that my flight that night (August 6) back to Newark was going to be at least an hour late.  Uh, oh. That would cause me to miss my connection to Raleigh, so I began to stress over being stranded at Newark on Saturday, August 7. Here are my real-time notes en route home as I struggled to get reliable information from United:

Delay! That’s the message United Airlines conveyed at 905am Friday, 11 hours before my Newark flight’s scheduled departure. It said the flight would leave an hour late at 900pm, but no mention of the new arrival time in Newark. The scheduled arrival was 545am, so the implication was the actual arrival time would be an hour later at 645am.

Trouble was, my connecting flight Newark to Raleigh departed at 755am. With the inevitable long queues waiting for Newark Airport immigration and the security screen, the two hour connection window when the Johannesburg flight lands on time was adequate to make my flight to RDU. 

But if the plane from Johannesburg landed an hour late, all bets were off that I could make it in just one hour rather than the usual two. In which case I’d need to scramble to see what later flights fo RDU were available with a seat open, a dim prospect in this busy summer of travel. Thus I needed to know exactly what time I’d get in to Newark with the delay.

Since United’s message failed to give a new Newark arrival time, I consulted both Flightaware and Flight Stats, my go-to sources for accurate, up-to-date flight data. Thank goodness I’d signed up for an AT&T international text and data plan before leaving the USA. 

I was quickly able to pull up UA187 on Aug 6 Johannesburg to Newark on the apps and was dismayed to see the projected arrival time was 708am on one site and even later on the other. I’d sure never make my 755am Raleigh flight if the inbound hit the runway at 708am. 

I checked my UA app again, but no new arrival time was posted–very frustrating since the airline had presented me with only half the facts, that is, the Jo’burg one hour departure delay, but not the Newark arrival time. I’d have to either hope for the Johannesburg to Newark flight to somehow make up enough time for me to connect to the 755am Newark to Raleigh or I’d have to see if I could get rebooked on a later flight. 

Hope is not a strategy, so I opted for emailing my travel agent, Steve Crandall, owner of Discount Travel in Jacksonville (FL), with the United snafu to see if any later flights had open seats. God bless Steve for being up early and checking his messages. He was able to get me on a 300pm flight to Raleigh. 

A 7-hour wait at Newark after a 16-hour flight is daunting, but no other flights were available: no seats. Seven hours in Newark would be a living hell, but what else could I do? I reluctantly accepted the new option and gave up my 755am reservation. 

I recalled that the 755am departure had itself been booked a week ago because United had canceled my 825am flight Newark-Raleigh. Had that flight not been canceled, I could have made the connection even with the delay.

All this rebooking I did while waiting at the beautiful Skukuza Airport for my SA Airlink flight to Johannesburg. Having to focus energy on fixing another United screw-up was the last thing I wanted to do on my last morning in the Kruger National Park. 

The SA Airlink flight landed on time in Johannesburg at 220pm.  Patrick, the porter who helped a week ago, met me at the domestic terminal at 234p after I collected my bag. He walked me and my luggage to the United Airlines check-in counters. I was impressed he showed up and tipped him R100 (about $7), plus gave him a big lot of clothes I’d brought to distribute. 

UA counters B1-B10 opened at 315p for the 800pm flight. Which was now 900pm. Or later. No one at the United counters knew. I just got a good-natured primal shrug when I asked. Sad. I made my way through security, handing over various Covid-related forms now required by the South African government as I went, and waited in the business class lounge for flight time.

To my great surprise, and without any announcements or messages from United, the plane left very close to flight time. Service on board was identical to the outbound flight a week earlier.

My United Airlines Johannesburg/Newark flight–the one that United repeatedly advised me yesterday would be late–touched down at 545am, which was exactly on schedule.  Go figure! 

Thanks to being registered in the TSA Global Entry program, I was through the Newark B terminal immigration and customs hurdles by 604am and out the door. I went straight to the nearest United agent to see if I could change back to the earlier flight to Raleigh. 

The UA agent working the connection desk tried hard to get me on the EWR/IAD/RDU flights (755am departure from EWR) that I moved off yesterday when United said the inbound flight from Jo’burg would be late, but the IAD/RDU flight had no seats on account of the Spirit Airlines collapse this past week. 

That leaves only the 300pm flight to RDU, which at least is a nonstop. I checked in online for that one, thanked the agent, took the Newark Airport Airtrain to terminal C, went through security (PreCheck) using my electronic boarding pass, walked the long way to the only United Club open at the airport, which is across from C74 (same as last week), and the agents on duty let me in using my inbound business class boarding pass at 629am, 44 minutes after my plane landed. Heck, I could have made even a 700am flight had there been one! Certainly could have made the 755am to Washington Dulles (IAD) if the connecting flight to Raleigh had seats. 

Instead, I wait 8 long hours here in the same overcrowded hellhole as last week–but it’s better than waiting on the concourse. Even so, 8 hours is half the time of the 8,053-mile Johannesburg-Newark flight, and this interminable wait is due to United Airlines’ bad information. 

My travel agent and I tried to find earlier flights or connections from Newark to RDU today on every airline serving this airport. No seats available. Even JetBlue is chock-a-block today. Nothing on Delta or American, either. I was lucky to get the United 300pm to Raleigh. Given the realities, I’ll practice my zen meditation and be happy to get home at 500pm. 

By the way, the crowds here at Newark this Saturday morning are Thanksgiving-busy. Many people are flying this summer. Pent-up demand being released despite the Delta specter. And perhaps providing just the right circumstances for further spread. 

It was a great trip to the Kruger despite the headaches caused by United Airlines at each end. I got a great business class fare on United, or else I would NEVER have flown the airline. For the same reason (cheap business class fare), I’ll be on the same flights in business class twice more in Oct/Nov and in Feb/Mar.

But I wish I wasn’t on UA. Delta Airlines is far from perfect, but I’ve never experienced such chronic problems on their flights to Johannesburg.

A short history of post-9/11 flying

September 8, 2021

Jetlagged after the 16 hour flight from LAX, which had followed six hours of flying from Raleigh to L.A., I woke up at 3:45 AM in the Millennium Hotel in Sydney, Australia on September 12, 2001 and turned on the TV to see if the inanity of talking heads would lull me back to sleep. That didn’t happen. The shocking horror of the 9/11 attacks dominated reporting on every channel. The 14 hour time difference meant I was watching live coverage at 1:45 PM on 9/11/01 in the United States.

By then it was a known terrorist attack, and more were expected. Little else was certain. I immediately phoned my wife back in Raleigh and advised her to gas up the car and have water, food, and go-bags ready in case more attacks came. We made a plan for emergency evacuation that included having cash in hand in case credit cards stopped working (I was trying to imagine worst-case scenarios).  After hanging up, I reflected that this tragedy would certainly have a negative impact on the experience of flying, though I couldn’t yet imagine how. I recall thinking that the epicurean delights of flying in First Class in the luxurious QANTAS 747-400 front cabin I’d just enjoyed might be in jeopardy. I had no idea how right I was.

Civilian air traffic resumed on September 13, albeit with increased security measures that echo down the years to now. I returned from Australia a few weeks later to a vastly different world of flying. At the time I was flying every week, sometimes several times weekly. I learned quickly to adjust my arrival at airports from one hour before flight times to two or more hours in advance. The extra time and long queues took a toll on my psyche and my productivity. It was wearying and stressful. I had to factor the uncertainty of security queues into my travel planning and time with clients. Clients didn’t like it, and I sure didn’t, either. It was especially bad at places like Chicago O’Hare and even Raleigh/Durham, my home airport. Being a super-elite flyer didn’t count for much, suddenly. First class and TSA Pre lines hadn’t yet been contrived.

Ditto for boarding. In the early days after 9/11, TSA agents would show up at gates with folding tables and randomly search carryon bags when boarding commenced, despite everyone having been subjected to thorough screening already. Holding a first class seat counted for nothing; many times I was “selected” because I never checked my luggage, boarded first, and therefore made a juicy target.  The searches took a long time and usually ensured the overhead compartments, even in first class, were full by the time I was allowed to continue into the jet bridge. Flight attendants, themselves stressing over new security-related routines, had little care or sympathy for my plight if I couldn’t find a place to put my suitcase, no matter my ticket’s high fare basis. 

Fear of the unknown hung over airports and flying like a dense fog. The existential threat of more terrorist attacks on airplanes was unrelenting. A palpable scent of dread permeated the skies. I frequently overheard airport club murmurings that the terrorists had succeeded in killing the general sense of wellbeing in naïve America, even if the perpetrators were rooted out and destroyed. Flying would not be the same again. I tended to agree. Flying had ceased to be fun. The armored cockpit doors that began to be installed on every airplane represented more than a way to prevent further attacks; they signaled a chilling of the friendly skies.

Lots of grumbling, too, in the immediate years after 9/11 about the steep decline in airline service. Slow decay in service and comfort had become evident in the 90s, and we very frequent flyers began to sense that airlines were using 9/11 as a convenient excuse to impose additional misery and austerity upon its highest revenue customers. The outrageous hypocrisy of grinning airline executives in video ads claiming their carrier’s service superiority grated on my nerves. Food and beverage service diminished, first apparent on routes under 1,000 miles, a standard that continued to drop until virtually no meals were offered. I certainly experienced it on every airline and constantly complained. Despite my millions and millions of miles, all I got in return amounted to a few placating computer-signed letters of apology and sometimes an extra thousand frequent miles dumped into my account.

But frequent flyer programs were already twenty years old in 2001 and becoming long in the tooth.  Even then airlines were beginning to look for ways to make program benefits harder to obtain.  So an extra grand of miles was a drop in the bucket. Mostly, my complaints fell on deaf ears.

Still, business flyers like me clamored in public and made such a fuss about crummy schedule-keeping and sucky service and ever-spiraling fares that service began to improve a little by 2008; well, at least for denizens of the front cabin.  Then the Great Recession of 2009 hit, the second big blow to the airline industry.  Under the cover of dismal bookings, airlines resumed cutting service and paring back frequent flyer benefits on a continuum to the present. 

Made worse, as I recently observed, by the travel ravages of the third big blow: COVID.  As I wrote in that post, on a recent flight from Minneapolis to Fargo, not even air-conditioning or water was available.  With no explanation from either the captain or the flight attendants, let alone an apology.  Just a one-word excuse: “Covid.”

I don’t need airlines to resume serving me Beluga caviar and Krug Champagne as was common in the 80s and 90s (though I wouldn’t turn either down), but the twenty year nose dive in service no longer excites me quite as much to get to RDU.

Yep, flying is just an expensive bus service now. Nonetheless, my short stint on this planet as animated star dust has been a rich and wonderful experience thanks to existing in the flying era. I’ve been able to see the world from a plane!

UA 188 Newark to Johannesburg in business class

September 1, 2021

On July 29 I was scheduled to fly on United Airlines from Raleigh (RDU) to Newark (EWR) to connect to United’s nonstop Newark-Johannesburg flight that night.  I wrote about United abruptly canceling the RDU/EWR segment at 2:00 AM with no alternative, which led to an all-day ordeal of misery to get to Newark in time for my flight to South Africa.  That story was posted on my old blog site (Allen on Travel) and on this site (Will Allen on Travel).  No thanks to United, I made the connection.  Finally now I am writing about the international segment to Jo’burg, a much more pleasant experience despite being an hour late and with service hamstrung by Covid restrictions.

United assigns new 787-9 aircraft for the U.S-South Africa 15-16 hour flights, configured up front with the newest generation of seats.  UA calls it Polaris Class.  Here are my real-time notes from the flight, which inexplicably boarded late and left late:

UA188 pushed back from the gate at EWR at 2144 (944p), 59 minutes late (scheduled departure was 2045).  No announcement of courtesy explaining why either by the gate staff or pilot once on board.

Off ground quickly at 2208 (1008p), no doubt an expedited taxi-to-takeoff due to the need to conserve fuel for the 8,003 miles to Johannesburg. 

My bulkhead seat 1L on the starboard side of the new Polaris cabin shows the tightly-configured, layered arrangement, about which more later.

The computer flight map says ETA JNB (Johannesburg) 1825, 40 mins late. That number kept creeping later until it was 1849 (649p), over an hour late, making a liar out of the captain who said tailwinds would help us arrive at a half hour late at 615pm local time in Johannesburg.

Constant turbulence for nearly an hour over the Atlantic due to severe thunderstorms arriving over New York. Tornadoes were forecast for Newark just before we departed. No service at all then, of course, not even a bottle of water. 

Then, abruptly, an hour and 25 minutes into the flight, the purser showed up with a hot tray dinner:

Prime rib and gravy (superb! delicious!) with carrots and broccoli and rice (all shockingly flavorful) served with a salad (fresh and tasty) and ended with small (really small) container of mango sorbet (scrumptious!). Poor presentation, but good food. Well, except for the stale prison farm roll.

Accompanied by Ayala French Champagne (never heard of it, though Joe Brancatelli vouched for it) that had a tangy but not great “dosage” with too much Cognac for my taste, but the bubbly was French and served properly chilled. I had four tiny, ugly plastic glasses of the stuff as I was desperate to relax and to feel I hadn’t totally wasted my money. Pre-Covid crystal glasses, or just regular glassware, now a fading memory. Sad. 

By then it was nearly midnight my time, and I was relaxed for the first time since I learned at 700am that morning that United had canceled my flight Raleigh to Newark. The first real food and drink I’ve had today (two 16 oz. bottles of water) certainly helped. 

Seat 1L is starboard bulkhead and thus near the forward galley. All row 1 seats are more spacious than every other row, which, as I said before, are configured zig-zag to maximize the seat capacity.

Seats are arranged 1-2-1 across the Polaris business class cabin (compared to 2-3-2 in Premium Economy and 3-3-3 in coach), so lots of privacy. The odd-numbered rows on the hull have two windows each and are more distant from the aisles; even-numbered rows are close to the aisles with just one window. The privacy, extra space, and two windows are why I selected 1L.

An annoying discovery was that the United headsets provided on this 787 have unique plugs with one larger than the other. Making the plug on my Bose noise-canceling headphones incompatible. My Bose phones are far superior in comfort and noise reduction, but were rendered useless without a special adapter plug, which I didn’t know I needed until we were in the air. 

Nonetheless, I enjoyed two movies using the pathetic United headphones after getting the purser to write up the issue (she agreed most business class customers bring their own Bose phones).

I always enjoy following the computer map of our progress.

Eventually, I fell asleep for about 4 hours after adjusting the seat to the lie-flat position and using eyeshades and earplugs. I found it was hard to breathe wearing both a mask and eyeshades until I discreetly pulled my mask down over the tip of my nose. Flight attendants either didn’t notice or didn’t squawk about my sleepy-time mask transgression, and I rested well. 

Trying to adjust to the six hour time change (this time of year), I made myself frequently get up and walk up and down the cabin after my nap, stopping in the galley area to stretch for 10-15 minutes at the time. It’ll be time to go to bed again once we clear immigration and make the short walk to the City Lodge hotel across the airport parking deck, and I know from experience that it’s better to be tired when I reach my room in order to sleep through the night. 

Or at least most of the night.  I’m always jazzed to be back in Africa! 

Now just two hours to go to Johannesburg, we are overflying Namibia after crossing the SE corner of Angola. Then over the Kalahari Desert of Botswana before reaching South African airspace and making our descent. Breakfast is about to be served (although it’ll be late afternoon when we arrive in Jo’burg).

I spent a couple of hours chatting with various flight attendants and came away with a more charitable view of United. They’re doing the best they can under trying circumstances (Covid-related austerity and precautions).

Bottom line is that after an extremely poor start, United folks on this flight have partially redeemed my view of the airline. I can’t forget, too, that my extremely low business class fare $1600 round trip) was less than Delta’s premium economy fare ($1800)—a great bargain, in fact.  Just the same, I’ll be very glad not to deal with United Airlines again until I have to fly home in 8 days.

  • End of real-time in-flight notes.

 My day-to-day experiences getting to and from, and, most importantly, being in, the Kruger National Park are posted on my Allen on Africa blog at https://allenonafrica.wordpress.com/.

Shelter from the storm

August 24, 2021

Last weekend my wife and I accepted a friend’s gracious invitation to spend a few nights at Emerald Isle, one of our favorite North Carolina barrier islands.  After a solid month of feverish travel battling airline screwups flying to and from Montana, Newark, South Africa, and Fargo (yes, North Dakota), and then driving 1,044 miles round trip to Tennessee, I was more than ready to cool my jets and do nothing but get sand between my toes and salt water up my nose: shelter from the metaphorical storm.  And from a meteorological storm, too, as it turned out, in the form of Hurricane Henri, which luckily remained far offshore as it moved up to New England.

Their rented beach cottage sits directly on the ocean.  Just as it should be.  In my view, if you’re not situated in an oceanfront house on the beach, then you’re not really at the beach.  You might as well be 100 miles inland.  After a short two and a half hour drive from Raleigh,

In North Carolina we cling to the quaint term “cottage” to refer to all manner of bloated palaces on the sand as if the monstrous sea citadels were the charming little beachfront bungalows of the twentieth century.  Heck, the seaside gazebo of this castle is larger than some of the modest shacks I rented on this same stretch of shore as late as the 1980s:

(This oceanfront “cottage” is three down from the one we stayed in.)

With seven mouths to feed, I fried up 24 softshell crabs for dinner Friday night.  Softshell blue crabs are a southern delicacy, so popular nowadays that it can be hard to find live ones rather than frozen.  From long experience I’ve learned that live softshells will yield a superior flavor when cooked than frozen ones—though no one I know has ever declined any fried softshell crab, frozen or fresh.  Turned out my phone order for two dozen wiped out the local seafood store’s entire softshell inventory of the day.  I was lucky.

Doubly lucky, as it turned out.  I placed the order sight-unseen, and I was happily surprised that the crabs were enormous when I picked them up.  I have not seen giant softshell crabs like those in three decades.  In the parlance of softshell aficionados, softshells that big are called “whales” for good reason.  No wonder the price was $6.50 per crab (and worth every penny).

Back in the kitchen, the first step in preparation was to remove the gills just under the shell (called the “dead man’s fingers” because crab gills can concentrate toxins removed from filtered seawater—not recommended to eat).  Then I snipped off the mandibles and eye stalks.  After which I left the crabs to dry out a bit and come to room temperature.  That helps the crabs cook all the way through quickly when thrown into the fryer. 

The softshells got drenched in an egg batter, then dredged in corn flour (to which I added liberal amounts of salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper, plus a little sugar), and then flash-fried in 100% peanut oil at 450° F.

If the oil is hot enough and the crabs are at room temp and not overly moist when thrown into the pot, then they are done in two or three minutes.  Short cooking time at highest possible oil temp ensures the least possible oil is absorbed, which preserves and heightens the delicious crabby flavors. In case you are not aware, every bit of the crab is eaten, including shell, legs, swim flippers, and claws.

Four homemade sauces accompanied the crabs, along with roasted potatoes and green beans. However, the meaty and delicious crabs were literally devoured until everyone was sated, and the veggies sat untouched.  Friday night we ate like kings!  And drank Champagne like royalty, too.

Beautiful surf Saturday morning was generated from the offshore hurricane (Henri), though with a dangerous rip current. Didn’t thwart the surfers from swimming out to meet the waves.  They know how to make the breakers work for their purpose.

I’m comfortable and competent in the ocean, but I gave Saturday’s surf a miss.  The red flags were up warning of rips, and I have tremendous respect for the sea’s moods.  An undertow generated by storms can drown even a strong and experienced swimmer.

Instead of a morning swim, I boiled four pounds of fresh-caught North Carolina jumbo shrimp for breakfast to peel and eat, accompanied by two dipping sauces. I used an entire bottle of fresh, super-hot horseradish in the red sauce: wicked good.  Reasonable, I thought, at $11.95/lb.

Some eat shrimp in the morning with scrambled eggs; some prefer shrimp on a buttered hot bagel. Both deelish.  Me, I just peel the shrimp one at a time and plunge them into the dipping sauces.  Accompanied by ripe cantaloupe and blueberries.

The view from our deck on Sunday morning.

By Sunday Hurricane Henri was plaguing Rhode Island, and the sea at Emerald Isle had calmed.  I relished body-surfing in the waves, followed by washing off in the outside shower, reading my book, reminiscing with friends, walking on the beach with my wife in the late afternoon, and sitting on the deck with an icy sundowner in hand.  I love travel like I have done the last month—even when frenetic—but last weekend on the ocean was the perfect calm I needed to destress.

Covid: The universal excuse for travel troubles

The elusive and existential nature of the itty-bitty microscopic coronavirus has become the catch-all excuse that covers all ills, inefficiencies, and incompetence of travel providers nowadays. “Covid!” is sometimes exclaimed defensively in anger. Or expressed in a low voice, plaintively, as in: “Hey, man, it’s Covid.” Usually accompanied by a primal shrug. Either way—and every way in-between—it has become the ultimate get-out-of-jail free card for airlines, rental car companies, hotels, and service providers in the travel supply chain. No matter how dastardly the travel outrage or foolishly bumbling the circumstances, Covid is now the reason.

Witness what United Airlines told me when I bitterly complained that they canceled my flight to Newark at 1:30 AM the morning of travel with no alternate booking to get me to Newark for my connecting flight to Johannesburg. Their cover-up? Essentially, the United Club agent’s message to me was “Covid made us do it” and how dare I question that. Then looked over my shoulder, and announced: “Next in line, please.”

When I queried the flight attendants in business class (Polaris) on my United flight to Johannesburg that night why the IFE movies on the 15+ hour flight seemed so dated, “Covid” was the answer, and they pointed to cheap plastic cups used for wine and Champagne as if to reinforce the obvious and justifiable austerity. Never mind that Emirates and Qatar are serving in crystal flutes on their flights up front.

Last weekend while traveling through the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport, I questioned a 27-cent “Hospitality” charge on the receipt for a single bagel and was told it was due to Covid, with a smile. Then why isn’t it labeled “Due to the pandemic”? I asked. The clerk’s eyes rolled and turned to the next customer.

On an Endeavor Airlines (Delta Connection) CRJ900 flight out of MSP just before noon, the air conditioning system was not turned on as we boarded, and the interior was sweltering.

“The captain is aware of the situation,” came the flight attendant PA, “But due to Covid, the plane will not be cool until we reach 10,000 feet. Please close your window shades to keep the heat out.”

Too late! It was boiling, and lowering the shades wasn’t going to help. No explanation why the A/C was out. Inoperable? No APU functionality? No airport power?

When we reached and exceeded 10,000’ altitude, the cabin remained an oven, and it never cooled off en route to Fargo—luckily, a short hop. Nor was anyone in coach or in Comfort+ where I was seated offered even a small bottle of water to counter the heat. The captain never made any announcement, but as we deplaned, I asked the lead FA to simply be honest if the A/C was broken. She shrugged and murmured, “Covid.” The universal vindication for anything wrong.

At Lilliputian Fargo Airport I picked up a Budget rental car for the weekend for $81/day. When I asked why weekend rates were so high, naturally the reason given was Covid. Of course rental car companies have been struggling to meet demand due to fleet depletions, which has pushed up rates, but no shortage of cars at Fargo was apparent. The rental car lot was full at Hertz, Avis, Budget, and every other brand.

Checking into the Microtel by Wyndham hotel in Moorhead, Minnesota for two nights—a modest property I’d visited four years ago, leaving good memories—I spied a crumpled notice crookedly taped to the front entrance announcing no breakfasts—not even a small takeaway bag—would be served “due to Covid.” Four years previous the hot breakfast had been a stand-out feature.

I questioned the front desk clerk, clad in a tee shirt and watching Netflix on a laptop, why not even a takeaway brown bag. Again the big shrug, and the single utterance, “Covid!”

I retorted that we’ve all been vaccinated and not a soul was wearing masks, including the hotel staff. This time came a sustained, tired shrug before his eyes returned to the screen. Why couldn’t I see that Covid covered all things wrong?

“Then how about a discount to cover the loss of breakfast?” I asked.

“Already built into the rate,” came the quick, well-practiced reply, his focus never leaving the laptop screen. I couldn’t tell one way or another whether the rate was discounted, of course.

Nor did housekeeping clean and make up the room or replace the towels for two nights. (“Covid!”)

En route home on Monday morning I called Delta between flights to find an alternate itinerary for Halloween to New York after a schedule change, one of many schedule changes this summer. When I complained that the extra cost to modify my flight was exorbitant, especially considering it was over two months out, the agent blamed Covid. When I asked her to be more specific, she just said, conspiratorially, “Well, you know. Covid has changed everything!”

And right she is.

Remote Covid test worked in the African wilderness

For months I’ve sweated and obsessed planning the Covid test requirements for another trip to South Africa. That is, what types of tests would I need and how would I get them. I just got home from that successful trip last weekend. Naturally, before leaving the USA, I researched ways and means to get Covid-tested in both directions.

South Africa required a PCR test, which was fast and easy to get, thanks to Wake County Health Services here in central North Carolina offering free, on-demand tests. I uploaded my negative test results to the United Airlines website before flying over there, a requirement to be allowed to board, and had to show the printed results on arrival to South African health officials to be allowed to enter the country.

The U.S. CDC requires Americans returning from other countries to produce a negative Covid test, too, but it can be either a PCR or a quick antigen test. Thanks to the United.com website, I discovered that Abbott Labs offers a CDC-approved, at-home antigen test in partnership with emed labs that is monitored remotely by video to assure the test subject’s identity. Sounded good, but it was dependent upon a good cell signal to work via smartphone, and who knew if I could get tested remotely using my phone from the African wilderness?

The United website made the process sound easy, but I wasn’t sure:

HOW IT WORKS (For roundtrip flights originating in the U.S.)

  1. Book your roundtrip flight.
  2. Order COVID-19 Antigen rapid tests on eMed.com.
  3. Tests are shipped to your U.S. address (or local pick-up location).
  4. Create a digital health pass account, download the app, and pack two (2) tests per person in your carry-on bag before leaving the U.S.
  5. Three (3) days before returning to the U.S., start your test session.
  6. Receive an eMed Labs Report with your test result. (optional test result available in the NAVICA™ app.)
  7. If negative, share your eMed Labs Report test result to board the return flight.
  8. Return to U.S.

I decided to give it a try. Looking deeper, I found two options for ordering the test kits. The emed site offered six kits for $150, or just $25 each. Since I only needed two tests, I chose instead to buy the same kits in a 2-pack from Optum Labs for $70, or $35 per test. Ordering from Optum was quick and efficient, and the test kits were delivered in less than two days.

I carefully packed the small kits in my carryon and flew off to South Africa where I visited the Kruger National Park for about a week. The Kruger, which I’ve written about often, is huge—about the size of Belgium—and of course a wilderness area. However, improved cell service throughout South Africa means that I can usually get a halfway decent signal most, but not, all places in the Kruger. I wasn’t sure I could at Satara Camp in the Kruger where I calculated I’d be three days prior to my flight, and the test results had to be dated not more than 72 hours before the date of departure. Therefore, I planned to try to administer the remote antigen test the morning of the third day before my flight date.

My backup if that failed was to make a 6-hour round trip drive from Satara to the Skukuza Camp Doctors Office for a PCR test that’s sent to a lab outside the Kruger National Park. That process requires 24-72 hours to get results and costs about $120 altogether (compared to the Abbott antigen test kit price of $35 delivered). But I wouldn’t know if the long detour to Skukuza and back was necessary until I tried the Abbott/emed remote test, and so I was time-crunched to do it Tuesday for my Friday flight. Consequently, I was in a hurry that morning to get to Satara Camp to launch the remote Abbott/emed test.

Thus, after two nights at the Kruger’s Olifants Camp, at 600am I departed to make my way south to Satara Camp for the next two nights. A ground mist and overcast sky dimmed the sunrise. The main road was rich with wildlife, which I often stopped to watch and photograph, but I was still able to reach Satara by 800am and start the remote Covid test procedure.

Because I couldn’t check into my Satara accommodations until 200pm, I didn’t have a private place to conduct the test. I wandered over to the electrified perimeter fence near the Satara Camp restaurant where no one would mind if I removed my mask (unlike in America, everybody in South Africa wears a mask when around others), and I used my phone, which had a middling signal of two to three bars, to sign into the emed website.

I was soon connected to a representative by video who was able to remotely manipulate my phone’s front and rear cameras to verify my identity (closeup of my passport) and to scan the unique code on my sealed test box. She and another rep took me through the entire test process in about 40 minutes.

My test result was negative (Whew!), and I was able to access the PDF of the official test result certificate within two minutes. I uploaded that negative test result to the United website as required for me to board my flight home on Friday evening. United Airlines approved it, as promised, within 24 hours, evidenced through a text message. I was therefore able to check in and board my flight Friday without any hassle. On arrival in Newark from Johannesburg, no U.S. official asked to see my test result (unlike my arrival in Johannesburg where I had to show a negative test results to South African officials before being allowed through to SA Immigration).

It was way cool that I was able to do all that standing within a few feet of the fence separating me from the African wilderness. The internet and smartphone technology are amazing tools. Thanks to the remote test kit, I was able to avoid the long trek to Skukuza and back for the PCR test. Not to mention save money on both the test itself and gasoline for the long trip south and back. I plan to buy and use more of these tests when I fly United again to South Africa in October. I understand other airlines, including Delta, also recognize and accept the Abbott/emed test results, though I haven’t verified that. I hope the Abbott/emed test will soon be accepted by all airlines for all Americans returning from international travel.

United Airlines: Misery and madness

Months ago when I booked Raleigh-Newark-Johannesburg (South Africa) on United Airlines for me and a friend, I purchased first class tickets for the domestic connection RDU/Newark and in swanky international business class on the 16-hour Newark/Johannesburg leg on July 29. I checked in for both flights Wednesday night, July 28 and went to bed certain that Thusday, July 29 was going to run smoothly, my first overseas trip since Covid began.

Then United sent me a text at 130am canceling the Raleigh-Newark flight with no alternate flight booked. Reason given was bad weather approaching New York + Newark runway construction.

I later confirmed bad storms were forecast in the NY area for late on July.29 and that Newark has just a single operating runway while rebuilding other(s). However, that doesn’t explain why United didn’t rebook our paid first class seats and sent only a middle-of-the-night notice.

United also canceled my friend and colleague’s RDU/EWR (Newark) flight, Newark/Johannesburg (JNB), plus 3 intra-Africa flights, his Johannesburg/Newark leg, and his Newark/RDU flight.

United eventually, after many long and confusing phone calls, rebooked my colleague on the EWR/JNB nonstop with me, but not on his intra-Africa flights–which they had no business canceling to begin with because they’d been booked and paid for directly with the South African carrier (SA Airlink).

Originally, United had rebooked him on the following day’s Newark/Johannesburg flight without asking him and without considering whether his Covid PCR test results would be accepted by the South African government since they’d be a day late by then, nor whether his onward travel plans, including hotel, air and car rental, were impacted. Totally stupid and non-integrated.

At 704am July 29 when I learned this, I booked a Hertz car one way Raleigh to Newark (an 8 hour drive) as insurance. If we left by 9am, we could make it by 5pm for our 845p united flight to Johannesburg (Avis & Budget reported no cars).

Meanwhile, I notified my long-suffering travel agent who had booked the rez. He was able to quickly book us on a Delta RDU/New York LaGuardia nonstop at 105p for $218 each one way. So I canceled the Hertz rez and dashed to RDU without breakfast. Good thing I was already packed and ready to go. Our agent said I can get United to refund for the outbound portion of the ticket when I get home. I kept hoping the return EWR/RDU wasn’t canceled. (I got an email from UA the next day saying it was indeed canceled.)

Arriving RDU, I was surprised to find the Skycaps are working the curb again, first time since Covid. I tipped one $5 to get our bags inside because I knew I might be able to get us on an earlier flight to LGA than 105p. The sooner we got to New York, the better, I thought. I didn’t want the Skycap to check our bags on the confirmed 105p flight if we stood a prayer of getting on the 1051am flight.

Sure enough, the Delta Air Lines Priority counter agents were extremely helpful and sympathetic when I explained our plight. They put us on standby for the 1051am nonstop to LGA and checked our bags on that earlier flight.

We rushed through TSA PRE-check and to the standby flight gate D5. The agent had already cleared us and handed us Comfort+ boarding passes. Mine was 6D, a window. My traveling companion was in 5A. Lucky us. No thanks to United.

The 1051am Delta flight left the gate on time. Now we just had to figure out how to get from LaGuardia to Newark.

Off the ground at 1059am.

All but three window shades were closed throughout the flight. What’s wrong with people? No one looks out at the world from above any more. Are we all really so jaded that the magic of flying doesn’t penetrate our sensibilities?

Routine but adequate service on the little E175 airplane. If it’s on time, I kept thinking, I’ll be thankful. It arrived early.

Thick cumulus clouds mostly obscured the New York area on descent.

Landed 1208pm.

Left LGA 1242p via Uber in a Suburban to EWR for $139. Our Nepalese driver has been in the USA for 5 years. Spoke understandable English despite having arrived from Kathmandu not speaking a word. Impressive, I thought.

Our driver navigated from LaGuardia (in Queens) via the Williamsburg Bridge to traverse lower Manhattan to the Holland Tunnel, creeping across town, as usual. A stifling 102° in Holland Tunnel.

Arrived New Jersey 125p. Arrived EWR Airport 143p.

Checked in, with great help from United agent Michael Lewana [sp?] (from Brazil), and were through security at 207p.

Found the single open Newark UA club at gate C75 to wait. Our flight was due to leave from gate C121 at 845p, a long wait. But we were there! And that morning we didn’t think we would be. No thanks to United.

Nobody at United could confirm if my return flight EWR/RDU on Aug 7 is valid after United canceled today’s RDU/EWR flight. The agents in the UA club (only two people, and of course swamped) were poorly trained, with no authority, and had to phone for help. The people they phoned were utterly incompetent. So, NOTHING was straightened out. But by then I’d had two Hendricks gin and tonics, so I was more sanguine about my chances than earlier.

It was a literal Dr. Seuss-in-the-third-world situation. I’m pretty sure we could have sold sold our dinky two-person table for $50/seat. The United Club was horrible, a canker on the entire American scene.

Making things worse, I discovered that there are just just two sit-down toilets and two urinals for guys in the entire United Club with 500+ people there. Just added to the chaos with men standing in line.

The Club was packed out: SRO. Covid must love that place.

With boarding 90 minutes away, I hoped the flight in business class to Johannesburg would be the highlight of that hectic day.
Our misery wasn’t over, though. The Johannesburg flight left an hour late and arrived an hour late in South Africa, but I’ll save that story for next week.

For the record, there was no reason for United Airlines to cancel domesic flight ls in South Africa that were spaced out over two weeks and booked and paid for independently of the UA itinerary.
And of course United had no reason to cancel anything that was not tied to the RDU/EWR separate reservation.

Thank goodness our travel agent responded to email from home before he even left for work that morning.

And that our agent looked into the Newark/Johannesburg record and noticed United had canceled the SA space, otherwise, we would have had a rude surprise when showing up for the flight once overseas.

Thank goodness our agent got two of the last three seats RDU to LGA, while other United passengers were on hold forerver to get protection or standing in a long line.


Thank goodness our agent was able to rebook SA Airlink and hold it without selling a new ticket so we could talk to their agents on arrival in South Africa and get the reservations fixed. All no thanks to United Airlines.

Altogether, a vivid picture of why I haven’t flown on United since 1994 or 95. If I didn’t already hold two more paid business class tickets on the same UA flights for Oct-Nov and Feb-Mar travel back to South Africa, I wouldn’t risk such misery and madness again.