Sunday, November 26, 2017

Adventures in Canyonlands Part 2: The Dinos Don't Have a B Plan...

Life's a winding road

......But I do.

By the last evening of this fateful trip I found myself sliding into a chair at the bar of the airport hotel next to the airport hotel I was staying at 3 minutes before closing and ordering a pepperoni pizza, after a 4 hour drive over the mountains, in the dark, with two complete strangers. 

How was your day?

Maybe I should.... go back.....to 48 hours earlier when I was flying down the road at midnight looking for the Green River Holiday Inn Express.  And I do mean flying- this part of I 70 has a speed limit of 80, and by midnight even the truckers have pulled over for the night.  I did the 30 miles in no time.

The hotel itself was nothing special, but I wasn't expecting all that much, so it was fine.  I slept a few hours, and then got up in time to battle my way to a continental breakfast through what I can only imagine was no less than 3 busloads of Chinese tourists trying to figure out exactly what 'biscuits and gravy' are, and how one might go about eating them.  I got a waffle, some tang colored orange juice, and retreated to my room.

The actual reason for my being there was to take depositions of some locals, and we needed an internet connection.  As it turns out, one of the only places for rent with such services is the local "River Museum" next to the Holiday Inn Express....which is how I ended up dressed in a suit, taking a deposition, all the while being stared at by an angry looking stegosaurus skeleton in the basement of a natural history museum.  Can't make this up.



Rawr!


CANNOT make this up.
We ended up wrapping up the work in a day, but I'd booked the next night in town in case we hadn't, and so my flight was in the afternoon the next day.  This left some time to see a thing or two after hours.  Like I said, Green River doesn't have much in the way of attractions in town, but is situated in the middle of some breathtaking landscape and national parks.

I headed down I 70, thinking I'd take some pictures here and there, and maybe make my way to Goblin Valley, which Siri let me know was about 45 minutes away.  Helpful as always.  Well, I guess I distract easily, because I missed my first turn off, and wandered down the freeway too far.  When I was going to turn around and go back, I saw what looked like an alternate highway on the map which would let me avoid backtracking.  Excellent (she thought).


This is what I refer to as the 'before picture,' as in, 'this is before she ignored Siri's advice.
For some reason though, Siri was saying it would take three times as long as the other route, despite being about the same distance.  Silly Siri, she clearly doesn't know what she's talking about (she said to herself, as if she knows anything, and took the next exit onto a byway.)



Well, the byway got less and less paved, and veered more and more into open country.  Still I went bravely ahead because - adventure.  Less paved became unpaved, and then smooth dirt became rocky, and rocky started dipping in and out of dry and not so dry creek beds and the like.  Siri may have been on to something.


No Dodge Chargers were harmed in the making of this blog post.

Nevertheless, I kept going, mainly because the further I went, the more beautiful it got.  Spending 99% of my time currently in Los Angeles and in other major cities, it's very rare to get the chance to be the only one in sight.  I did occasionally see another car, which was just enough to make me feel like if I got a flat or whatnot I might not die alone out here.



Eventually I just needed to 'hear' the nothing, so I stopped the car and got out for awhile.  It was just me and a heard of cows in the distance wading through a pond, with canyons and sagebrush all around.  Definitely not something that happens on every business trip. 



Breathe.  Listen.  Repeat.


This is the 'after' picture, as in, 'this is after she realized she had taken both the wrong, and perfectly right, turn off of 70.'
I never did make it to Goblin Valley, or any other real 'landmark' that day, and it was more than fine with me.  The last thing I needed was to fight crowds to enjoy nature, when for once it was abundant everywhere else.  Plus, Siri was right, and it did take a lot longer to take the detour.  I headed back to town and checked into my second hotel of the week.

 


I stayed at the Skyfall Guestrooms, which turned out to be an unexpectedly pleasant experience.  This independent motel consists of 4 rooms under the 'Tamarisk' restaurant, which fronts on the river.  Each room has modern, unique, d├ęcor and comes with plenty of little extras.  There's a free mini bar with soda and snacks, as well as apple TV that lets you sign into your Netflix and Hulu, as well as regular channels.  The big picture windows let you relax and watch the sunset over the river.  No complaints at all.  Plus, it comes with free breakfast upstairs, which includes the full menu.  The experience here put the Holiday Inn to shame, for a lower price.  It's a good stay if you can get it.

 

The only issue with the stay was the strict check in and check out times.  I had to wait awhile to get moved in, and I had to leave promptly at noon the following day.  I stayed as late as I could working using the free wifi, and then headed out for a few hours before my Boutique Air flight back up to Salt Lake.  I wanted to go to the CNY airport a little early to try to chat with some locals anyway, so it wasn't a hardship.

 
Delicate Arch from a distance.
I had a couple hours before even that made sense, so I stopped by Arches National Park.  It did have far more people than my mistaken detour the day before, but was still beautiful and made for some great photo ops.  Between the timing and the heat, I didn't have time to do any of the serious hikes, but did the drive and hit some of the high points. 


The travel day's shirt.  Bought in Copenhagen, worn everywhere.
On my drive back, I pulled over to grab a sandwich at a place that, once again, had a decidedly dino theme and checked my flight.  Well, not exactly my flight, but where my plane was.  All morning I'd been stalking it on FlightAware and all was well and on time.  Then, over my chicken ceasar wrap, I saw the dreaded flight status change to 'delayed.'  Go figure.  I had a bit over an hour to change to my AA flight in Salt Lake, which was plenty, but I couldn't handle more than about a 30 minute delay, and FlightAware was calling it 2 hours!  Nooooooooo.......

Of course, , seeing as how I was in the middle of nowhere surrounded by plaster casted raptors and cleverly named lunch entrees, my call to Boutique Air kept dropping, so I jumped back in the car and hauled to the airport 20 minutes away.  The lone employee at the counter didn't even know about the delay when I told him.  He had to call Denver, and found out it was a minor mechanical that they were working on.  I was skeptical.


However, a few minutes later, lo and behold, the plane was on the runway with a new tail light (yes...seriously, tail light) and would be headed to Moab only a few minutes late.  Travelers, rejoice!  I settled in to do a little work, and then went out front at arrival time to watch my plane land and taxi in. 



I hung out with my fellow flyers waiting to board, and watching the ramp workers re-fuel and check the plane.  My next clue that things were going South was when the mechanic re-fueling shut off the hose, and dropped it on the tarmac.  No...don't you....come on!

The flight crew were hanging around, looking concerned, and talking to the airport staff.  Also not good.  Finally I knew it was all over when a mechanic went into the plane for a bit, talked to the pilot, and then walked away from the aircraft yelling to a friend, "That thing's broke!"

Out here in Canyonlands, they don't exactly mince words.

As finally explained by the lone Boutique Air employee, they had a failure of a critical avionics component, and the plane wouldn't be flying until a part got there from Denver.  At this point I had missed my connection, and AA moved me to the morning flight, but I still needed to get to Salt Lake.  As stated earlier, it's a 4 hour drive.  Not ideal, but doable.

Now, there's a few times in life where you just get down to basic human ingenuity and get over yourself.  This was one of those times.  I looked around at the other passengers who I knew were all out of luck and just asked who still needed to be in Salt Lake tonight.  I'd already checked with my friend at Enterprise and she could give me the car for the drive, but there was a $150 'drop fee' to return it in Salt Lake.  So this meant a $200 bill to drive. 

Of the now stranded strangers, one man who flew Boutique enough to know this happens but still needed to catch a flight the next day to Brisbane said he was in right off.  Another passenger- an older woman who didn't have a connecting flight, but tearfully said she had a doctor's appointment she couldn't miss in Salt Lake, clearly also needed a little help.  So, now that $200 wasn't looking so bad.  I went ahead and got the car back, and in the process the Enterprise staff said that 'somehow' the computer 'wouldn't let her' add the drop fee, and so therefore, we wouldn't be charged.  Awesome! 

So, my new compatriots and I piled back into the same trusty Dodge Charger with whom I'd been through so much over the prior 48 hours, and headed out of CNY and off into the sunset bound for Salt Lake the old fashioned way.  We stopped for gas before going over the mountains, each grabbed a soda and a bag of chips, and I booked the Courtyard by Marriott on the fly in all of about 40 seconds, and we were off again.

And all of this just about brings this full circle.  It was at 9:58 when I finally dragged into the restaurant of the Hilton Garden Inn at SLC, which was my only option since the Courtyard doesn't have a restaurant at all.  It took about 4 hours, including dropping off the (no longer crying) crying woman, and returning the rental car to the Airport. Not bad, if I do say so myself.

I was exhausted, but at least I had a flight home and a place to sleep.  I logged onto Expert Flyer once the dust settled on the day to check out the seat map and possible upgrade on my new flight back to LAX.  One seat left, which a few short hours of sleep later I managed to snag!  I boarded bright and early to find the same cabin crew I'd had on the way out.  The Flight Attendant remembered me from my unicorn flight, and asked me how my trip had been.  I just laughed.  She got the picture.

And the moral of the story is- all's well that starts with adventure, and ends with a seat up front.

Fly Safely,

~CruisingAltitude






 

Monday, November 20, 2017

American's New 777-200 Premuim Economy Class Review


I don't think I've ever been this okay with missing an upgrade to First before.  Given that I'd rolled out of bed at 3:30 in the morning on a Monday in Dallas to head to the airport, return our rental car to National, take the shuttle to Terminal E to use my CLEAR membership even though I was flying out of Terminal D, and make a fast stop at the Admiral's Club to shower before boarding, being 'okay' was even more impressive.

At the airport, I learned I wasn't going to clear the upgrade.  Not only that, I was #17 on the list.  This, after having been 1 or 2 all year long, and clearing around 90% of the time!  I had a chat with the AAgents at the Club, and they weren't surprised at all.  There were at least 25- yes 25 (!!) Executive Platinums on the upgrade list, which by boarding had almost 60 people total.  Well then.  Monday morning DFW-LAX lives up to its reputation once again.  On top of that, being 17th or 1st didn't even matter.  Nobody cleared.

This is all just set up to say that I was fine, especially once I gave Expert Flyer (a beyond useful tool that I'll give more info on soon) a last check before I turned in the night before and saw the seat map had changed at the last minute since AA saw fit to put a newly outfitted long haul 777-200 on the route, complete with their new Premium Economy cabin!  Since I'd been booked into one of the first rows of the old Main Cabin Extra and was an Executive Platinum, I was automatically kept in the new seats! 


Instead of just having a little more leg room, like Main Cabin Extra, Premium Economy is an entirely different class of service.  Economy on this plane is laid out in a 3-4-3 configuration, while Premium Economy is 2-4-2.  Removing those two seats means that the seat size in PE is closer to what you'd expect in domestic first class on a 737 or 321.  There's a larger arm rest/console between seats, increased leg room and recline, and foot-rests, as well as nice big screens for the IFE. 


Seat 13J, Premium Economy
I was seated in 13J, which is the aisle seat of the front row.  This makes it a bulkhead seat, so the legroom is more than you could ever need.  The footrest comes out from under the seat, and folds at the end.  I'll say it's a little short- and I'm 5'4" so when you use it your legs don't really stretch out, but it does let you put your feet up.  In this row, the IFE folds out from the center console, which makes the seats slightly narrower (though it didn't bother me), and means you can't watch the IFE during taxi/takeoff/landing.

Nice sized IFE screen
The IFE screen was great!  It has way better resolution than the screens on the 777-300, even in business class, and the touch feature was responsive and easy to use.  As a side note, you can see the attachments in the bulkhead where bassinets would go if this was an international flight.  Something to either aim for (if you have a baby with you) or avoid if you're worried about the disruption.  More on bassinets over at Baby Flyer Blog.

If this flight was international, there would be enhanced menu and drink options, as well as headsets.  However, they didn't feel the need to pull out the stops for the 3 hour hop to LAX.  Overall, it's a solid product, especially since I didn't have to pay extra for it.


AA Premium Econ Cabin example- Photo Credit Forbes.com

It will be interesting to see what AA does with this product going forward, and if it will eventually serve as a degradation of elite benefits, which would definitely be the case if AA decides to make main cabin upgrades go to PE instead of Business class.  Luckily this hasn't happened yet, but I wouldn't put it past them, especially under the current management. 

For now though, it's a nice surprise to get to use when you stumble upon the right plane at the right time.

~CruisingAltitude

Friday, November 17, 2017

Adventures in Canyonlands Part 1: Clear, Delays, and Unicorns, oh my!

 
Canyonlands Field Airport- CNY- Adorable.
Greetings friends, are you ready to take a little journey with me?  Now, I usually don't make multi-part trip reports out of domestic travel, but this one just made it necessary.  It has everything: Line jumping, delays, cancellations, upgrades, a tiny flight on a tiny plane, and even some free range rental car antics, which is that thing of when you think you're taking a short cut off the I-70, but end up sitting on the hood of your rented Dodge Charger watching cows wade through a pond.

You see why this gets more than one entry now?

So here's the set-up- I had need to be in Green River, Utah for work.  Now, Green River is about an hour north of Moab, and that puts it 25 mins or so away from the Moab (CNY) airport.  It's also about 4 hours South of Salt Lake, give or take.  So, a bit of a drive.  However, I came to learn that there's an airline that operates a couple flights a day from Salt Lake and Moab.  It's an independent airline called Boutique Air that flies 8 seat PC-12s in the 'executive' configuration.  I was intrigued.


The screengrab I kept proudly showing people about my cute little plane I had booked
However interesting, I couldn't justify it unless it actually made more sense, work-wise.  As it turned out, the ticket prices were extremely reasonable, as was the car rental at Moab.  So, the real question was just whether I wanted to spend up to 8 hours driving to and from Green River.  Spoiler alert- I didn't.

So I booked my ticket with AA to Salt Lake, and then another round trip from Salt Lake to Moab with Boutique Air.  I figured this was either the best idea I ever had, or the worst.  As we'll see, it's a little of both. 

For accommodations, I booked the first night at the Holiday Inn Express in town, and the second night I branched out and tried an indepedant place called the "Skyfall Guestrooms."  Skyfall wasn't available for the first night, but it was worth it to make the move to save a little, it was literally across the street.  As a general FYI, everything in Green River could be said to be "just across the street" as it isn't much of a town overall. 

Plans in hand, I set out for the airport bright and early on Monday.  My flight wasn't until 11am, but this is LA, and you have a choice between going painfully early, or just spending the morning on the 405. 

Since the lounge in Terminal 4 is down for updates, I checked in at Terminal 5.  Wow.  Just wow.  It was an absolute zoo.  I'm not exaggerating here- the line for security wrapped down the stairs, across to the other side of the ticketing hall, and down the wall as far as the eye could see.

This is the morning I learned the meaning of CLEARI've posted about this service before, and while it's been 'nice' to have, this was the first time it saved me some serious wait time.  Initially, I didn't know how to even find the CLEAR line, because they wouldn't let me up the stairs to where the kiosks are.  When I asked, I got told "get line and they'll find you." 

Um....

.....What, now?

At this point I was debating walking over to Terminal 4's security to try my luck there when I indeed was 'found' by a CLEAR attendant.  Well not so much found, as I saw him and started a frantic arm flailing and yelping 'clear? clear?' mantra.  In no time flat, I was rescued, and taken right to the front of the pre-check line.  I was through the chaos and into the Club and ordering my custom salmon on toast in 10 minutes or less.


Someone even left a premium drink 'chit' for me.  VERY THOUGHTFUL.

*breathe*

After that, I headed on the bus over to the Gate 52 'Eagle's Next' to catch my flight.  The wonder did not end- I boarded to find I was the only, yes only, elite on the flight.  For the next 2 hours I had 6 first class seats to myself, and when I took a walk to the back to use the restroom, found that all the exit row seats were also empty.  Unicorn.  Absolute unicorn.

This is my face when I know something's too good to be true...and then it isn't and I have 6 seats and a flight attendant to myself.

We touched down on time into Salt Lake, and since there's no lounge there (aside from the Delta SkyClub) I set up shop at a restaurant on the 2nd floor with a great view of the runways and hills behind.  I had a few hours, so I got lunch and did some work. 

Part way through the wait, as I was getting organized to call for the shuttle over to Boutique Air, which they recommend you do about an hour to 30 minutes before your flight time, I got an email from Boutique saying my flight was delayed 50 minutes.  Okay, no big deal, except that the car rental at CNY was going to close on me.  Called them, they amazingly said they'd be waiting since I wasn't the only one.  Called Boutique to check on the reason for the delay- 'rolling delay from earlier issues in Denver.'  Okay, fair enough.


I was here for a long time.  They let me run my computer cord through into the pool room to plug in after awhile.
Let me just fast forward at this point- I didn't actually board the flight until about 10pm.  It was a 6pm departure as scheduled.  More delays, more phone calls, more hours at the SLC restaurant.  This is the issue with 'flying private'- they have exactly one plane available for that flight, and if it's not there, you're not going yet.  Luckily the people were very friendly, and their lounge over at the general aviation side of the airport has very comfortable chairs.



About the flight- unfortunately I couldn't get any good pictures because it was, well, dark by this point.  Here are some things to know- They don't assign seats, so when you board you just pick one.  The 4 in the front are set up in an "executive" configuration, so row 1 faces row 2.  Rows 3 and 4 face forward behind. 


My boarding pass- note the lack of a seat assignment, but they do participate in precheck (though at SLC they're not within a TSA area.

They check your luggage for free, and there's really only room in the passenger area for one small item you're comfortable with on your lap.  They'll weigh your luggage, and ask your weight before boarding for weight and balance purposes.

This plane carries 10 people, including crew.  It is small- you have to lean over to walk to your seat, but the seats themselves are bigger than standard airline seats.

They do have a bathroom, but it was inoperable on my flight.  Go before you board.

That all said, once I actually got onboard, we had a short taxi and then a very smooth flight for a small aircraft.  It was a full moon, and so even though it was dark, it was still a beautiful flight.  These planes fly lower than you're used to flying commercial, so you can see more detail.  There's no separation between the cabin and cockpit, so you can also watch the pilots and the flight controls to see the altitude and such, which is fun if you're an avgeek.

We landed a short 45 minutes later, and waited a few minutes to have our luggage returned.  Here's the long awaited end to the car rental saga- after waiting after hours for far too long, the Enterprise staff amazingly just left everyone's keys in the unlocked rental cars in the parking lot and went home for the night.  Unorthodox, but awesome.  I signed the papers, put them in a drop box, and headed out into the-completely dark, and completely quiet- night, bound for Green River.

Adventure, thy name is Canyonlands. 

Up next- Off-roading by mistake in a Dodge Charger, more adventures with Boutique Air, road trips with perfect strangers, and dinosaurs in a deposition.  Yes, dinosaurs.

~CruisingAlitude

Monday, October 9, 2017

Yes, This Is Real Life Part 6: Birds in Doha

 

 
Preview: Yes, This Is Real Life

Part 1: Location, Location, Location

Part 2: Brits In Beantown

Part 3: Shades On, Wheels Up

Part 4: Welcome to Ghostport
 

Part 5: When You Layover During Ramadan
 
In each of these adventures, there comes a point when I wax poetic about the experience of travel.  So, buckle up, because here it comes....in a minute, once I deal with some logistical preliminaries.  

As discussed in the last post, we spent the first nighttime layover in Doha at the Grand Hyatt.  It's a beautifully sited property at the entrance to The Pearl.  The Pearl, for those who 1, haven't been to Doha, and 2, care, is a man-made land form (I guess is what you'd call it) that spirals out into the gulf.  It is still under construction, if the huge cranes are anything to go by, but is home to a ring of high rise commercial and residential buildings, followed by even more outlying 'islands' that, as far as I can surmise, look to be exclusive residences.  It's best viewed from the air, but the 'gateway' is fairly impressive from the ground.

 Thanks to hotel status, we landed a suite with a great view for the night.  

 Now, let me just back up and say that I had my reservations about trying to check into a hotel in Doha with a person of the opposite sex who I'm not married to.  It might be silly, but the blaring notice that a marriage certificate is required for Qataris gave me pause.  I'm on a mileage run, and ain't nobody got time to spend with the morality police between flights.   

As it worked out, there were no questions, and hardly any side-eye.  I was pleasantly surprised after my last major foray into this town, wherein I learned that at night most people don't walk the streets, especially single western female types.  I didn't feel unsafe really, just out of place.  



After we over indulged at Iftar, and spent a few minutes relaxing at the man-made 'beach' out front, we retired to the room, and realized it was about noon at home and there probably wasn't any sense in trying to adjust to the local time.   So, what're a couple of mileage runners to do?

Step 1- Open the bottle of wine the manager left for us to thank us for our brand loyalty. 

Step 2- Drink it & converse all night about the thrill of flying around the world. 

And on this point I need to expand (you were warned) because there's something existentially beautiful about mileage running.  When you're planning the average, or even above average trip, there is generally an accepted purpose that you try to fulfill- Wine tasting in Napa, or skiing the alps.  You start there, and build the necessary plans around it.  You have a goal, you meet it, you are victorious.  

However, a mileage run is a trip in reverse.  The plans come first.  And I don't mean the plans to go on a snorkel cruise, and then a romantic sunset dinner.  I mean the airline tickets, the layovers, and the one nights hotels- what is usually the most pedantic part of the plans.  The outcome of this is that you aren't beholden to preconceptions, or to anything at all.  If you go and come back, mission accomplished.  Everything else is gravy. 

Which means that, when you and your friend just spend the entire night's layover watching rugby, talking about nothing, drinking wine covertly, and then watching the sun come up over Doha, it's perfect.  There's no sense that you were supposed to do a single thing differently. 

So when at 4am, you start to hear bird calls as you stand looking out from the darkened balcony of your hotel, and your friend says he didn't think there were birds in Doha.....you just laugh and have another drink.  Because sunrise will come all too soon over this expensively camouflaged desert. 

Because yes, there are birds in Doha, as there are the world over.  And yes, they wake up at 4 am, as they do the world over.  And it's beautiful to realize this, when for once your only purpose in life is to know that there are still a few universal truths....and then to you yourself to fly on to your next stop along the way. 
 

And that, is what's up next...
 
Part 6- A Stop in Sri Lanka: Dealing with Dragons or, Ceylon With a Side of Naptime
 

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Yes, This Is Real Life Part 5: When You Layover During Ramadan....

The main lobby of the Grand Hyatt.  We've arrived.

The story so far:

Preview: Yes, This Is Real Life

Part 1: Location, Location, Location

Part 2: Brits In Beantown

Part 3: Shades On, Wheels Up

Part 4: Welcome to Ghostport


By way of disclaimer, I fully admit to knowing little to nothing about the tradition of Ramadan outside of some rudimentary comparative religion classes in college, and a couple of weeks of googling what it would be like to be a foreign traveler here during the holy month.  Any of my thoughts/observations are purely based on my outside perspective as a mileage runner spending a weekend bouncing around Middle East airports, and may be completely incorrect. 


On arrival in Doha, the flight crew made an announcement about the holiday, informing passengers against eating, drinking, or smoking in public spaces during the daylight hours.  The airport lounges also were not serving any alcohol at any time, though they did have their regular food service running during the daytime.  We didn't stop at the proper arrivals lounge though, since we had the Grand Hyatt waiting.

When in Doha- Ramadan tent.
Getting into town, the combination of the oppressive summer heat, political travel restrictions, and daytime fasting have made this city feel abandoned.  We checked at the Hyatt in before sundown, and the hotel was quiet.  What's more, almost all of the restaurants were closed.  They had one 'international' restaurant open called 'Santa Monica' which, to a Mileage Runner from LAX, just seems wrong.  However, there was another option....



Having realized about a month ago that we'd be doing our Doha layovers during Ramadan, we decided to make the best of it and take advantage of the lavish evening meals that the bigger hotels here in Doha hold nightly.  They put out huge banquet spreads- multiple salad bars, hot bars, carving stations, and especially over the top dessert bars.  Think 8 flavors of ice cream, pies 3ft across, and chocolate fountains.  They generally have two sittings- around 8pm, and a later time around 10 that goes until 1 or 2 am.  They set up special dining areas in a tent outside, complete with uplighting and music.  Needless to say, we each had several plates and made the most of the experience.





Needless to say, I was glad that the Hyatt also had an impressive gym and pools, both indoor and outside.  However, they were doing some promotional photo shoots of some kind outside, and so we were relegated indoors to swim.

Back up to the gym for a moment though.  I actually went on arrival and actually managed to make myself get a good workout.  (You may applaud here) This being Qatar, they have a separate gym and spa area reserved for women only.  Now, this isn't the norm in the west, but I will note that the other part of the gym was co-ed, so women weren't excluded.  I expected the ladies part to be small, or lacking in equipment, but OH MAN was I wrong.  It was full service, and as the rest of Doha was, empty.  There was even an expansive water spa with steam and sauna.  I could get used to this. 



After that, I felt pretty justified in enjoying my Iftar feast.  It was also fun to be out late (read all night) and to watch the city come alive (or as alive as it was going to get under the circumstances).  By the time we left the tent, the lobby area was full of people relaxing after the meal, and the hookah smoke was thick in the air.  We didn't' go that far down our 'when in Doha' path, have to leave something for the future. 

Up next- We stay up to see the sunrise, and the true meaning of mileage running is understood as we ask the existential question: Are there birds in Doha?

(With a hook like that, how can you not keep reading??)

~CruisingAltitude

Friday, September 29, 2017

Fare Deal- Los Angeles to Hong Kong for $430 !

Come on, let's go.
Here's another one that's worth checking out if you need a bunch of qualifying miles, though it won't get you many qualifying dollars.  Also, if you might happen to actually want to go to Hong Kong, that's a bonus.  I highly recommend it, even if just for a short time.  It's an accessible city that you can see a fair amount of quickly. 

Go for the miles, stay for the lounge...

The flights vary, but are either direct from LAX to HKG, or some routings will take you through Tokyo for a few hours.  If you're a Oneworld elite, this is no big hardship since the lounges at NRT are some of the best, probably closely following the embarrassingly good lounges at HKG.


Not bad.  Not bad at all.

There are some decent prices for the rest of this year, but the real 'deals' are mostly early 2017, with prices well under $500!  You can earn around 12,000 or more qualifying miles on this trip, plus it's a fun destination.  The long haul flights are on American planes, so systemwides and miles and co-pay upgrades are possible for the trans pacific segments.  Connections to and from Tokyo are on Cathay or JAL.

It probably won't last long, so get it on hold while you can if you're interested!

Fly well,

~CruisingAltitude

Monday, September 25, 2017

All CLEAR!



Baby Flyer enjoys her upgrade on the flight up.  AA has put some updated 737s on the LAX-SEA route with IFE.

After another beautiful and peaceful weekend visiting our family on Whidbey Island enjoying the big trees, tidal flats, and starry nights, I once again find myself in the SEA Centurion Lounge.  It's not a bad place to be.  The staff is friendly, food is more than adequate for a domestic lounge, and the drinks are top shelf (plus the services of a bartender who makes a killer margarita, along with just about everything else).  I'll even give them a pass on having 'sexual healing' on the lounge playlist.


Checking out the sand and shells.

I've also cleared my upgrades both up and back this weekend, and made it to the airport in decent time despite having some serious traffic on the 405 while taking the Whidbey-Sea Tac shuttle service.  On the upside, it gave me time to finish my excellent Puget Sound Kombucha I grabbed on the ferry.

Love the Earl Grey!

However, I've reviewed this place several times, so today I'm up to something different.  I think I've come far enough along to review the "CEAR" program showing up at more and more TSA checkpoints.  Note that this is an honest review, I've paid for my family's memberships the old fashioned way. 

The basic idea with Clear is that you go through some additional screening, both online, and in person to verify your identity and do some biometrics.  Then, you get two main benefits when you show up to a Clear airport- you don't have to pull out your ID at the screening checkpoint, and you get to cut the pre-check line.  So really, you cut the line that's cutting the line already.  Once you get to the actual screening, it's the same as precheck. 

How it works is that instead of going to pre-check, you walk up to the designated Clear lane, give your boarding pass to the staff member there, and put your fingers on the kiosk to read your fingerprints, or look into the scanner to have your irises scanned.  Then the staff member verifies it, stamps your boarding pass, and leads you to the front of the line. 

I grabbed it too early- the rest of the stamp is on my hand.
I had some early hiccups with the service, mainly at Houston when I was going through there a fair amount for work earlier this year. Right off, my ID didn't match up correctly with my AA account and therefore my tickets, so it had to be manually done, and then I got a chance to get it corrected and it's worked well since.  Second, it may just be a Houston thing, but the Clear lane didn't match up with the precheck lane, so you could in essence only use one or the other.  So you could use Clear, but then have regular screening (shoes off, laptop out) or vice versa.  A bit of a fail, but localized to IAH A gates as far as I can tell.

So, that's my critique, and now for the neutral part of the review.  In general, to decide if it's worth it to you (the cost is $99 with a Delta FFN, $179 without, family is an additional $50, and minors flying with you under 18 are free) you first need to note if your most common airports have Clear at all.  Now that LAX has it, as does SEA and DFW, some of our most traveled places, it weighs in favor of keeping it up.  Also, there's the simple fact of if you generally feel like precheck at your airports and times is a wait.  Honestly, LAX T4 really isn't most of the time, but other places, like today at SEA were a significant delay, so I definitely saved some time.

Now for the positives.  Because I like to think of myself as a people person, I'll start with the staff.  Every single one I've met have been fantastic, cheerful, and patient.  I don't want to paint a broad brush about TSA, some honestly are great, but having at least part of your experience with screening being consistently pleasant is a plus.  I hope they're being paid and treated as well as they seem like they are. 

Next- on average, it does save you time.  It's either as fast, or significantly faster than pre-check depending on the lines.  I also find just the act of not having to take your ID out twice a good thing, since it's been more than one occasion where I've forgotten to put it right back, and it's taken several days and going through my travel stuff to find my drivers license again. 

Another plus is that they make using the service as a family fantastic.  The fact that all minors flying with you are free and you don't have to do anything to sign them up is wonderful.  This is a stark contrast (for obvious reasons) with Global Entry where we've been stuck in the regular lines to get our kiddo through even though me and Mrs. CurisingAltitude are long time GE members.  Also, being able to tack a spouse onto a membership for $50 makes it less daunting to get everyone onboard.

Lastly, the bit of the review that's either a benefit or a drawback, depending on how you feel about it- Clear has it's own lane by pre-check, and as you're escorted through by the Clear staff member there's an air of "VIP" to it.  Like I said, you either love this, or feel a little silly.  Either's fine, just a sidenote, really.

Score!!
Overall, my personal feeling is that it's worth it for our family at the moment.  We're flying to places where we use it, and our Baby Flyer gets through with us for free.  The less fiddling around with IDs and bags with a 20 month old in tow, the better.  Plus, because we signed Mrs CruisingAltitude up at LAX, they were giving out free power sticks for new members, and gave me one too!  It's the little things. 

Clear may be right for you, or it may not.  I hope my thoughts help you make the decision.

Fly well,

~CruisingAltitude

Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Basic Burn.....


After my recent post about the unfortunate introduction of Basic Economy fares by American, let's just say I was more than a little amused to scroll through Facebook today and come across this little gem of an add by Southwest:


Well played, my friends, well played.

This is a company that knows when it's about to get an influx of customers fleeing the competition.  That's not base speculation either, as United covertly stated when it rolled back Basic fares just this week. 

In all honesty, if you don't fly enough (or far enough) to need the perks of a big international network, at this point you're much better off flying Southwest, JetBlue, or Alaska domestically.  The prices are fair, and in many cases, the service is much better. 

Plus, they have a sense of humor.

~CruisingAltitude

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Buyer Beware: AA Rolls Out Basic Economy

Don't look at me like that, I'm still mad at you.  You know what you did.

Basic Economy: The product no one needs, absolutely didn't ask for, and definitely don't want.  So...thanks for that.

Overnight, AA has rolled out their new basic economy pricing across their domestic flights, and it's bad my friends.  The pricing starts for flights later this month and continues on indefinitely.  It's a plan that all of the major airlines have gone with, and AA was just the last to conform.  We knew it was coming, and had already started in some markets earlier this year.

In theory, the idea is to let the major US 3- American, Delta, and United, price match the ultra low cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier by offering a ticket that removes all possible benefits and guarantees you'll hate flying just as much as if you were on Spirit.  Nice, right?

They justify it by saying it 'gives the customer the choice' to pick the benefits they want.  However, benefits like a seat assignment, or a carry on bag, are a bit necessary to the vast majority of travelers and so it's really just a way to nickel and dime people who don't understand, or don't care about the fine print.  In most cases you'll end up spending as much or more on the ticket once you have to add on everything that's necessary.



What's worse though, is the hypocrisy of how AA changed the pricing structure overnight.  Instead of actually creating some new lower fares and making those Basic Economy (which was how they advertised the upcoming change), they simply took the existing pricing and made the cheap tickets Basic, and started charging about $40 more round trip for the exact same main cabin ticket that had been there the day before.  Classy.

So, I hope anyone who had their eye on those cheap LAX-DFW fares I posted about last week managed to click purchase before today, because guess what?  Those $79 tickets are now booking into Basic Economy, and won't come with a seat assignment, a carry on bag, any flexibility, and will earn half of the qualifying miles and segments they would have 24 hours ago.  Oh, and they also aren't eligible for elite upgrades anymore either. 

Being elite does get you out of some of these restrictions, if you happen to find yourself in Basic.  You will still have your baggage privileges and priority boarding, but being off the upgrade list and earning fewer qualifying miles will hurt. 

As I said, AA isn't alone in this move, the others having done this already.  They're now set to make extra off of the up-pricing of the main cabin tickets they were already selling, as well as raking in millions in baggage and seat assignment fees from people booking into Basic.  There really is no upside for the consumer, but that's pretty well the point. 

In the end we have the big carriers' bottom lines to thank for this, but more importantly the likes of Spirit and Ryanair for showing them how to make air travel just a little less pleasant. 

From here on out, book wisely.

~CruisingAltitude