Monday, July 17, 2017

The Perfect Summer

It really is the little things that make travel memorable- the time you clear security in 5 minutes from entering the airport, the time you clear your upgrade unexpectedly into your favorite seat, and of course, when someone along the way takes that extra step to making your day just a little better.

It's the escape from the normal on scales small and large that keep us coming back, and make us crave getting to the next jetbridge.  Even when you dedicate a fair amount of energy to traveling well, it's easy to get stuck in the monotony, and caught in the minutia. 

I'm happy to say that my current trip defies these traps.  I'm wrapping up a lovely, if short, weekend on Whidbey Island, WA with family.  The weather was perfect- warm days, cool nights, and sunsets made for storybook covers. I grew up here, and I don't get back nearly enough, especially in the summer.

Bringing all this ennui back to topics I cover in this blog, I have to comment on the recent upgrading and expansion of the SEA airport.  In case you've been living under a rock for the last 10 years or so, Seattle has become the SFO of the north, and as the industry and money have moved, the airlines and services have followed.  What once was a 2nd tier dominated airport, nearly to capacity with Alaska Air 737s, has become a bustling hub of the major players.

Most importantly (for me) just last year American started multiple nonstop service daily from LAX, and introduced the route with some killer deals.  Since then, I've rarely flown Alaska.  What's more, the 'Battle for Seattle'- a showdown between Delta and Alaska for dominance at this up and coming hub has ripped open airline alliances, and killed interline and codeshare deals between Alaska and both Delta and American. 

It's an interesting time to be alive...

However, what I really wanted to write about, less the small diversion, is that even American Express has apparently had their eye on Seattle, and a few years ago launched the 'Centurion Studio,' a smaller version of their Centurion Lounge, in the B Gates to test the waters.  Apparently, they got their answer loud and clear, and within the year started an expansion to the space that recently opened. 

It's fast become one of our favorite stops due to the beautiful views of Mt. Rainer, the nice food options, and especially the lounge staff.  From check in, to table service, to the bartenders, everyone is friendly and attentive. 

Tonight, I wandered up to the bar trying to decide what I was in the mood for.  I was immediately cut off, and was informed he had the perfect thing.  What I was served went a little like this:

"The Perfect Summer"

1.5 oz St Germain Elderflower
1/2oz fresh lemon
1/2 oz blood orange liquor
1/2oz simple syrup
Fill with crushed ice, float Prosecco to fill hi-ball glass
Garnish with a slice of grapefruit

And that, my friends, is the way to end a summer weekend before getting back to work.

Fly well,


Around The World In 80 Hours: Epilouge

Hello Boston!

I did, very eventually, make it back to Los Angeles.  I may or may not still have been wearing my Qatar pajama top.  When you fly 7 flights around the world, you can judge me for that.  Until then.....

The circle was completed by a final flight back to LAX direct from Boston.  My upgrade cleared well in advance through use of an expiring SWU (as this was 'back in the days' when we got 8, and by February some would be in jeopardy of evaporating into thin air unused), so I didn't have to go from one of the nicest seats in the Oneworld fleet, to row 15 on an aging 737.

Let's take it home!

 My layover in Boston was spent saying goodbye to my travel companion as he headed off to his much shorter flight back to DCA, showering at the Admiral's Club, and trying to do a little writing to collect my thoughts.  It was a whirlwind trip to say the least, and I'm still amused and amazed that it all worked out as well as it did.

I arrived late into LAX, and checked into the LAX Westin hotel for the night so I didn't wake up my family by blundering in half jetlagged and dragging my suitcase at 1am, and could instead get off to work in the morning with less drive time.

Looking back, this trip was easily one of my favorite, if not THE favorite, mileage run to date.  It was exhausting at times, but good company, wonderful layover cities, and the story to tell about making the complete round the Earth flightpath in a long weekend is hard to beat.  It checked all the boxes- luxury, challenge, hilarity, camaraderie, and of course, a huge haul of miles. 

Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me in reading this as I got it posted, and if you want to continue following this year's insanity, be sure to read about Havana Running, and of course the companion trip to this one- Yes, This Is Real Life, where I answer the existential question of how to mileage run to Cairo, when you can't fly to Cairo. 

As it stands, I'm actually coming up on my 100,000th mile very soon, which is much earlier than past years.  I should cross that milestone (get it...get it??) on our upcoming family trip to Europe!  Irony (or considering this year's flying, perfect fit) I'll get there on a Finnair flight from Helsinki to Copenhagen.  Look for a preview post about this mileage burn (not earn- this is where all those miles go in the end) trip both here, and also on Baby Flyer Blog.

Thanks again for reading.  Fly well, fly safely,


This is what one looks like after going around the world in 80 hours.  Midnight at LAX, yes, those might be QR PJs.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Yes, This Is Real Life Part 2: Brits in Beantown

Well done, BA, well done.

I did, very eventually, make it to Boston.  I hardly ever fly into Logan anymore, and so it was a sentimental experience to taxi into the B gates.  In many ways, I learned to mileage run because of the Boston airport.  Well, not the airport itself, but because for over two years Mrs. CruisingAltitude and I kept up a Los Angeles-Boston relationship.  Hauling back and forth to see her got me my first EXP status, and I've never wanted to give it up. 
Elevator up to the lounge level, follow the signs.
In the last few years, BOS has undergone some big renovations, and it was fun to see the new modern parts of the terminals as we walked from B to E.  The E gates serve international destinations, and I hadn't flown out of there before. We elected to walk through the parking structure, rather than taking the infra-terminal shuttle bus.  We got some steps in, which was good since we had a 12 hr flight ahead of us. 
The delay really limited the time I had to do the terminal change, check in with Qatar, re-security, and enjoy some pre-flight lounge time.  As we'd discovered just before this trip, British Airways has a beautiful new lounge at the E gates.  Since a major Oneworld benefit is access to partner airlines' lounges when traveling internationally, no matter the class of service, we headed over to check it out. 
Now, let me state again that I consider lounge access to be a major draw keeping me interested in staying loyal to Oneworld airlines.  With all the upheaval domestically with the merger and reduction in American benefits, you have to give Oneworld even more weight.  Where Delta might give better domestic service, and United is launching their "Polaris" class that looks pretty elegant, Oneworld is king when it comes to lounges worldwide. 

Airports like HKG, NRT, and SYD have lounge set ups for top tier flyers that are worth hours of layover time.  The free drinks and food, as well as comfort and services, are a bit part of the benefits of Oneworld status. So, it was annoying and short sighted when we were denied access at the door.  According to rules I'm pretty sure BA just made up, they deny access to Qatar customers, trying instead to send them to an inferior Air France lounge.  This is a clear violation of Oneworld rules, which state that OW Emerald has access to first class and business class lounges when traveling on ANY international itinerary, as long as the next onward flight is on a Oneworld marketed and operated flight.  There are a few very small carve outs to this, but the BA lounge in BOS sure isn't one of them. 

It says so RIGHT THERE, on their own sign!
They're right that they can make a non-Oneworld elite go to the Air France lounge since Qatar has contracted with that lounge to take their business class ticketed passengers.  However, we were at BA based on our Oneworld status, not the seat we were flying in that day.  The entrance to the lounge even has the Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire logo on it!  Things got a little heated, which is shameful on BA's part, because we were within the rules, and annoying loyal Oneworld elites shouldn't be a career goal for them.  They have plenty of transatlantic competition with newer planes, and lower taxes.
We did, however, prevail and were let in.  However, the entire thing was embarrassing, and the agents there need retraining on Oneworld rules if they really don't understand them.  This kind of issue was happening at the Qantas lounge at LAX when they first opened, and after a refresher, it hasn't been an issue since. 

Drama over with for the time being, we did get access to the lounge and had a look around.  The space is decently large for a BA outpost at a large enough, but not massive airport.  The d├ęcor is chic and modern, with some elegant touches.  It was, however, packed at this time of day.  This may have been part of the more vicious fight they put up over letting us in (or so I'd like to think).  It's to be expected though, as most transatlantic flights leave the US in the evening, causing mad rushes on the lounges around this time. 

A quick look around showed there was plenty of food, with both buffet and small made to order options.  The offering had a bit of a pan-Asian bent to it, which I enjoyed, though didn't entirely understand.  There were made to order lettuce wraps, and steamed buns, as well as a salad bar/hot bar, and plenty of sweets.

A small business center and showers were also available, and I had hoped to clean up before the long flight, but judging by the crowds and the delay that only left us with about an hour of lounge time, told me I'd just have to hold out until Doha.

We squeezed through the main part of the lounge, and found two seats at the bar.  The views of the sunset from here over the airport and the city were some of the most stunning of any airport lounge in the world. Paired with a glass of champagne, it was a perfect kick-off to the rest of the trip, and I'm still scheming on ways to get back there with the right ticketing for another visit.

Dear God, let me get back there again
All too soon, the sun disappeared over Boston, and it was time to head out to our plane.  However, this was definitely no great hardship, and the journey was just beginning!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Around the World In 80 Hours Part 9: And Then, Everything is Perfect

How we got here:
Well, my friends, here it is- the capstone flight to my first around the world trip.  We've come a long way to get here, and in record time.  Now all that's left is to kick back and enjoy the next 12 or so hours. 
Once again, Qatar's service is in good form.  The champagne corks are popped before the passengers even board, and they get right down to business when you find your seat- Armani amenity kits, comfortable (and more trendy than AA) PJs, and a menu that takes some time to look over. 

Yes, 1,000 times yes.  You can just leave the bottle, I'll be fine. Promise.
What's more, we're getting a first look at QR's new a350.  It's not quite the inaugural flight, but the plane's been in service for less than a year.  It's a snazzy thing, if I do say so myself (though, don't let my hometown hear me actually approving of something not made in Everett).  Qatar's done a good job of their business class cabin design- it's a 1-2-1 all aisle access set up with angle seats that lie flat (of course).  There's a decent amount of privacy, and ample tray table and storage space. 

Oh...and the cabin ambiance is fun.  There's the LED lighting scheme, not to mention the 'walk up bar' in the middle of the cabin that nicely takes up what would otherwise be dead space, or a spare galley, but also.... there's the ceiling.  They've removed the overhead bins on the inside of the business class aisles, since there's fewer passengers and they're not needed.  This opens up the feel of the cabin, and makes it seem much bigger inside.

The a350 being Airbus's rough equivalent of an answer to the Dreamliner, it's always worth making a few comparisons.  Overall, the experience is similar- lighting, modern style, composite materials, and smooth ride.  The differences are in the details- the 350 has snazzy windows with automatic shades, but instead of the dimming screens, they use actual shades that give a nice lighting feel over the blue or bluer scheme of the 787.
The other comparison you notice right off is the 350's modern winglet design which pairs quite nicely with the insanely terraformed 'coast line' of Doha.
Because they can
 So, now that I've set the scene....let the fun begin!  We rolled the runway pretty well on time, and we watched our progress from the HD camera on the plane's tail.  Best. Channel. Ever.
Like the last flight, everything on Qatar is 'on demand' - food, drinks, everything.  I took full advantage of this, and tried a few things from the menu, to the detriment of my potential sleeping time.  No pain, no gain.

Now, I know I post a lot about food and seats and airports, but wait, there's more!  Aside from the little luxuries, the most memorable flights come with unforgettable views that give you a sense of the world as you can't see it otherwise. 
While crossing between Kuwait City and Tehran, I looked out the window to see snow covered mountains on the horizon.  They only got more dramatic as we flew closer.   
It's flights like this that double windows were made for.  
It was at about this point that I 'helpfully' reached over the front of my TV screen to tap (some might say smack) my brave travel companion on the head, lest he sleep through these views.  And yes, he thanked me for it.... as everybody should.  How often do you get to see vistas like this between Baghdad and Tehran??  I mean, come on....
Only complaint about this plane, and for that matter the 787, is that the modern window controls allows the flight crew to take them over and force all the windows to go black when they think it's "lights out time."  While they really lock down on the 787, it appears to be just a 'hard suggestion' on the 350.  Now, I get that it's annoying if you're trying to sleep, and the guy in 6A's got his shade open like a spotlight.  But honestly, that's what eye masks are for.  They even give them to everyone.  On the off chance that you're on a flight that's largely a 'daylight' one, you should have the option to look out and see where the heck you are. 
This flight was a prime example of this quandary.  About the time we crossed over into Europe, the windows went dark until approach into Boston.  Unacceptable.  I'm a grown-up, and I'll decide when it's time for ny-nys, and when it's time for pretending I can tell Sweden and Norway from 31,000ft thankyouverymuch.
ANYWAY, I did need to get some sleep on this flight, so I got my PJs on, and my bed made up.  They provide a comforter and mattress pad, which does make a difference.
After some rest, and browsing through the extensive IFE selections, the lights went back up as we got closer to Boston.  I'll admit, it was pretty surreal to see the other coast of the US come up on the horizon after four days spent flying West.

And with touchdown in my once hometown of BOS, all that's left is the conclusion....

Around the World In 80 Hours Part 8- Doh-HA!


** Correspondent's Note: The posts here have been all over the place (pun intended) lately as I somehow managed to put just about all of my planned trips into the first half of this year.  As such, I haven't wrapped up some earlier trip reviews.  So, let's go back to February now and finish up going "around the world in 80 hours."  If you don't remember (or never read) the earlier parts of this story, see the links below.  Thanks for reading!**

The Story So Far:

Mileage Run Preview: Best Worst Decisions

After what felt like a much too short 4 hour flight from Columbo, we landed safely in Qatar at Doha's massive and modern airport.  We were here for just a short two hour layover before catching our next flight direct to Boston on Qatar's new a350. 

The last time, a little under a year ago, that I'd been through DOH I'll admit I wrote a rather scathing review of the airport, based mostly on their cheap cop-out on Oneworld policies.  I still stand by it 100%, even though this time on account of being an actual 'premium' passenger, I had access to the ACTUAL business class lounge.  Not that I'm not still mad about their shady policies, but at least this time there was more on offer than soggy sandwiches and warm chardonnay.
I'm getting ahead of myself here.  We landed around 6am local time and had to clear transfer security to get to the lounge and eventually to the gate.  Now, the Doha airport has clearly undergone drastic growth, much like all of this region.  What hasn't kept up the pace is their security checkpoints.  We filed into organized chaos trying to get back through to departures.  My advice for making it through during the morning rush (every single flight seems to leave at 8am)- find the 1st/Business class lane...and get your elbows out.  Turns out Qatar isn't big on orderly lines.

Anyhow, after that tiny slice of aggravation dissipated, we made it through to the main hall of the terminal for some quick selfies with (and jokes about ) the Big Teddy Bear that's still right in the middle of it.  If you didn't know better, you'd think there wasn't anything else in this place but this friggin' Bear.  Directions to anywhere, no matter where it is, start off with "when you get to the Bear..."

If you can't find the Bear, you're probably not even in the airport anymore.

So, we 'passed the Bear' and took the escalator to the Business class lounge, which brings us current.  The Al Majoran Business lounge is upstairs from The Bear, and is huge!  It needs to be for a couple reasons- 1. This is Qatar, and they can so they will, and 2. During the busy hours this is a pretty high traffic lounge, even though they keep out the unwashed masses with their Oneworld exclusion policy. 

The lounge is on two floors, with the main bar/restaurant on the top floor.  The first thing you notice once you pass check in is the massive shiny reflecting pool, with a huge spiral staircase going over it up to the second floor.  There is, of course, no good reason for this design since anyone with any amount of luggage will be taking the elevator but I refer you again to point 1. above: This is Qatar, and they can so they will.

The lounge offers plenty of food and drink, as well as a row of cubicles with daybeds in them if you have a long enough layover for a nap.  This is a nice touch, and beats trying to pounce on one of the few spaces like this at a Centurion lounge stateside, or attempting to curl up in a not-so-loungey lounge chair at the Admirals' Club. 

There is a full breakfast buffet, that encompasses the multicultural nature of an airport hub like this.  You'll find scrambled eggs and croissants, alongside congee, pickled vegetables and ful madames (a recipe I would much later try and painfully fail at recreating at home).  There's also a bar on this level, as well as coffee and soft drinks. 

We just had time to regroup, have a snack and a mimosa, and say goodbye to one of our traveling companions who was taking the Los Angeles flight, before heading out again to board the new a350 for Boston!  4 flights down - 2 to go!


Up Next: And Then, Everything Is Perfect

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Yes, This Is Real Life Part 1: Location, Location, Location

Sunrise over IAH

I should call this 'position, position,' but it lacks a certain ring. 

Today's the day, we're headed out.  But before we can jump right into the thick of it with our Qatar itinerary, we have to get to Boston.  I'm starting in Houston, and my friend who's going with me as far as CMB is making his way from DCA.  I started my day early this morning with a 5:30 am Uber to the airport from the downtown hotel I've been staying at for the past few days.  I got there in plenty of time and had breakfast at the Centurion lounge in terminal D.  The usual.

I do have a tiny story to tell though.  Remember when I said I took one of my Seattle layovers to sign up for CLEAR?  Well, I did it in part because I knew I'd be spending some quality time with the IAH airport this summer, and they have their kiosks at each terminal except the international terminal D, of course.  So I decided for the novelty of trying it out, and also because D doesn't even have PreCheck, and I've gotten burned by long lines there before, I'd go to A, check in with American, then take the train over to D.

With all that in mind, I was a little annoyed that when I went up to the CLEAR kiosks, the attendant there told me that those particular ones 'weren't open yet,' and that it was a long walk to the ones that were open.  Okay, but this isn't a large terminal, so how far could they be?  And if those weren't operational, why was CLEAR paying all that money to have someone standing there telling people so?  So I still haven't been able to use my membership yet, and I'm glad the trial didn't cost much. 

CLT Views

So, that story over with, I'm currently sitting in the Admiral's Club lounge at CLT before my next flight.  It's not a bad lounge, although it hasn't been renovated to the new AA 'look' just yet.  CLT is a legacy US Air hub, and so this was historically one of their spaces.  It still retains some of the old character- the dark wood and frosted glass.  Even though they don't offer a Flagship Lounge here, I don't mind it.  It has some great views of airport ops and the taxiways, and the proximity of the nearby gates is fun- you're up close and personal with the planes.

CLT Tails

 Lounges are strange places at times.  It takes all kinds, and you never know what you'll encounter.  Currently I'm about 20 feet away from a guy who I (seriously hope) is a doctor who has decided that appropriate behavior is to use his noise cancelling headphones to take a phone call in which he is explaining medical procedures and histories in detail.  Dude, seriously?  I also just heard the phrase "you're not supposed to know I have this information" followed by laughter.  Wow.


At this point it should have been just a quick little 2hr flight up to Boston.  Easy peasy lemon squeasy, right?  Famous last words.  I boarded my flight to find this little guy 'sharing' my legroom.  Now, I'll pause for a moment to give lip service to an issue that has the flyer online community constantly griping.  The uproar (if you can call it that) is over so called 'emotional service animals' who fly for free as service animals, though it is apparently easy to self-proclaim your resident furbaby a 'service animal.'  Now, I'm a fan of pets generally, and I fully understand legitimate service animals who serve an important purpose. 
I also understand feeling strongly enough about your pet to book them a legitimate pet ticket on a flight, and follow the 'fits in a bag under the seat' rule.  This was the case with my little friend on the flight, and he was well traveled and well behaved.  The complaints are over pets who fit neither of these categories. and as such, give a bad name to the rest of them. 
Okay, statement over.  On to the real story, which is the fact that no sooner did I board my flight and sit down next to Fido, that I realized things were going south with this plane.  And I was flying north (haha, get it??).  After being served a PDB (Yus!), I noticed maintenance was spending an unnerving amount of time in the cockpit.  Never good.
It was shortly (well 30 mins later) that we learned that it was the radios that were the problem, and about 30 more minutes later that that plane wasn't going anyplace.  Luckily, I'd already been on the phone with the Exec Plat desk at AA (a good perk of status) and had myself  'protected' on the next flight up to Boston.  This is a strategy that not many people know about, but can save an itinerary.  Getting protected means that if your flight cancels, you already have a seat on an alternate one, before the hoards offload and take them up.
The story should have ended there, with me on the next flight.  However, while I was waiting at my new gate to board my new flight, I heard an announcement that they'd found another 737 for my original flight, and would be boarding soon.  Really?  I mean really????  That seemed unlikely, even in the best of cases.   
Nevertheless, I had to check it out.  Mostly because if my original flight went, then my upgrade would stand.  I hustled down the terminal, calling AA back all the while, trying to sort it out.  Long story short, they did find a plane, and it wasn't broken, but it was unclear exactly when it would be ready to go.  In the end, I actually kept my original flight and seat, though pushed back on a different aircraft about 2 hours late. 
Luckily, I try to book in long layovers on mileage runs for exactly this purpose.  This delay ate up my valuable time to check out the new Boston lounge with my mileage buddy, but it didn't make me miss my flight, which in the end is what counts. 
And the lounge?  That's a story for another post...
Fly well,

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Interim Post: Vallarta Sunsets

Nuevo Vallarta- Absolutely No Filter
I've done a lot of flying lately.  There's been a fair amount of business trips, mostly hauling back and forth between LAX and Houston on E175s (the biggest of the regional jets, or the smallest of the twin, under the wing jet engine planes, depending on how you look at it.  Around this has been a couple trips to end all mileage runs, which I'm currently working my way through writing up.  Some of them are shamefully late at this point, but real life has been crazy, and since I don't know that I'll get the chance to do trips as memorable in the future, I want to take time to do those reviews justice. 
This weekend, however, is different.  It's flying the way the average American thinks it should be- traveling to an exotic, yet accessible, local to meet up with family, sleep late, eat too much, and knowingly get taken advantage of by savvy locals.  
I'm currently taking a moment outside of tonights's resident entertainment- mariachi bands, way too much food on the buffet, and bottom shelf tequila disguised as free flowing Margaritas.  Nuevo Vallarta (20 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta and 10 minutes south of Bucereias, MX) is at its best in the Summer.  This is, however, because it's the low season, and there's no fighting over beach chairs, or ridiculous crowds clamoring for tickets to swim with dolphins.  Seriously- in the holiday weeks, alarms are set for 5 am to claim prime poolside real estate, and battles rage on.

Occasionally, this time of year a summer rain squall blows through, but it just adds to the enjoyment for me.  Living in SoCal, actual storms are all too rare.   You need to count the time from lightening to thunder, to feel nature's power, now and then.
Mrs. CruisingAltitude's family has become well versed over the years at home timeshare politics and strategy, and we've been lucky enough to come along for the ride when schedules work out.  They alternate their reservations between Nuevo Vallarta, Cabo, and Cancun or Loreto (though some hair raising flights on -6's with Horizon air have put a hold on that location for the time being.) 
We all acknowledge that this is its own type of vacation.  As a family, we fancy ourselves explorers- seeking out good deals to new places, and looking for the bits of culture you can grasp as your trip rolls though.  However, we are also busy, hard working types, with a newly upcoming next generation.  Sometimes we need an excuse to take a trip with just one destination, and to stay awhile.  It's an almost guilty luxury, but we love it, and make no apologies. 

So, now, back to my thesis for this post, which I'm just going to assume hasn't been stated yet- Sunset over Nuevo Vallarta is stunning, any time of year.  What's better, it's proceeded most nights by the reflection of the sun on the hills around the bay as the sun lowers for the night. 

Of the destinations we have been to with this family timeshare, Nuevo Vallarta is the most naturally dramatic.  It encroaches on the rainforest covered green mountains, rather than the desert of the Baja.  Agave grows in the hills, and enough sea life abounds to keep your correspondent out of the ocean in favor of the pools.
I could go on in detail about our accommodations, but I'm sure I've done something similar in the past since we've been coming here off and on for the better part of 10 years.  Suffice to say, they're more than adequate, luxury by all accounts, and if I'm honest, give us more space than our actual home.  Thousands of feet of marble, and 180degrees of endless ocean views.  It's hard to go home.  

Luckily though, I have another night here before coming into contact with real life.  Even more luckily, it's time for tequila tasting before dinner, and I must go.
Travel well, relax often,