Visiting Roland Garros for the 2016 French Open

If there’s any job in the world I could have besides my own, it would be screenwriter. If not that, then absolutely a professional tennis player. As a kid I was actually quite light-footed on the court, and a solid doubles player with a powerful serve. Injuries kept me out of tennis for nearly two full seasons, and when I picked up a racket again, I was so embarrassed by my performance that I didn’t play for years. If I regret anything in life, it’s completely abandoning a game that meant so much to me. Recently, I’ve found my way back in, though it’s an expensive hobby to pursue in New York City! (And if anyone has any tips on where to play in Queens, send them my way!)

When I planned my trip to France for Euro Cup this year, I realized the tickets I had would coincide near perfectly with the culmination of the French Open, one of tennis’ four majors, and the only one on clay, my personal favorite surface. Thanks to a schedule that allows for flexibility and remote work, I decided the stars were aligning for me to head to Roland Garros to make a childhood dream come true.

Ordering tickets to the tourney was a bit of a hassle, mostly because I wanted to be 100% certain I’d have tickets to the matches, so I purchased them the day they went on sale. This involved a 4:50AM wakeup, and over an hour of waiting in a virtual “line” to have a chance to purchase. In the end, I had secured tickets to both days of the quarterfinals (8 players left in each draw, preceding the semifinals, and then the finals), the first on Suzanne Lenglen, and the second on Philippe Chatrier (the main stage).

Unfortunately, the lead-up to the tournament, and early rounds, proved to me that the tennis gods had no interest in putting on a world class tournament for me. Even before the tournament began, top players on both sides, including Roger Federer and Caroline Wozniaki, had withdrawn, followed by early exits from top players like Angelique Kerber, Rafael Nadal, and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. To cap it off, Paris was under siege by the weather, and Monday May 30, the day before I was due to attend, was a total wash out, the second in the history of Roland Garros.

It was in this context that I arrived at Roland Garros on May 31.

The complex is located in the southwest of Paris, accessible via Metro lines 9 and 10, in the Bois de Boulogne inside the XVI Arr.

What’s most shocking about Roland Garros is how utterly tiny the venue feels, and, in fact, is. Coming from New York City, and the US National Tennis Center, I perhaps had outsize expectations, but Roland Garros is just…tiny. Nothing about the experience conveys the feeling of being at a major championship. 

The venue itself is approximately laid out in an L-shape, with a long boulevard connecting the two main courts. Peppered around are shops and food options, with a few sponsorship activations and activities. The food options are incredibly limited, and I recommend anyone who go prepare a lunch instead, as you are allowed to bring food inside. Think of this as an even blander approach to American stadium food, with burgers, hot dogs, and cold baguette sandwiches on the menu.

Well thank GOODNESS they serve that French ice cream staple, Häagen-Dazs!

Well thank GOODNESS they serve that French ice cream staple, Häagen-Dazs!

Day 1 - May 31

There’s little good I can write about from my first day at Roland Garros. In the wake of Monday’s rain-out, the tournament had a lot on its plate for Tuesday. With matches due to being at 11AM, I arrived at 10, so as to explore the grounds (though, as noted, there isn’t much to see!). 

An unedited photo to show you just how gray the day was.

An unedited photo to show you just how gray the day was.

Instead, I spent several hours sitting in my seat, enjoy a washing from Mother Nature. Rain was persistent throughout the day, and led to several pushbacks in start time. All-in-all, I would see less than two hours of tennis, though it did include an impressive comeback from Tsvetana Pironkova against #2 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, after being down a set and three games. 

How I spent much of my first day at Roland Garros.

How I spent much of my first day at Roland Garros.

Most upsetting was the actions of tournament management which, I’m convinced, organized the day’s events to cut down on their own financial losses. If less than an hour of tennis is played, fans receive a 100% refund. If less than two hours, 50%. How much tennis was played? Two hours and one minute. Just enough to avoid further financial loss. The sequence of play stoppage is what has me convinced this was their underlying motivation, as the only match that remained on-court when the two hour mark hit was Novak Djokovic’s on Philippe Chatrier. Preceding this, all other matches had been pulled, because the conditions were unfavorable. Either management had its own agenda, or there is a unique weather pattern that exists only in-and-around court Philippe Chatrier. Similar to the unique set of physical properties that exist in-and-around a certain stove in the 1992 classic My Cousin Vinny.

Though I didn't see much action, here are a few shots from the day, which also included a few moments of action between Thomas Berdych and David Ferrer.

Day 2 - June 1 - Quarterfinals

With a near complete loss of play the day before, today’s schedule of play saw major matches going on not only on the main courts, but also outer ones as well, unique for a tournament at this stage. What did this mean for me? Instead of just two matches, I’d see four, and they would all be quite significant. 

Being on Court Philippe-Chatrier means knowing you’ll see some of the biggest names, and today did not disappoint. My lineup featured Serena Williams (W), Novak Djokovic (W), former US Open winner Samantha Stosur (W), and, most excitingly, the Andy Murray-Richard Gasquet match, with Gasquet as the sole remaining Frenchman in the tournament. The match, the most highly anticipated of the day, had a fierce pair of sets to open, with Murray and Gasquet nabbing one each. Unfortunately, Gasquet couldn’t keep up his performance, and Murray plowed through him in sets 3 and 4, silencing the French crowd.

Unfortunately, the day’s weather showed no improvement, and it was still a cold, rainy, gray environment. Not what you’re hoping for in Paris in mid-May!

Planning to visit Roland Garros? While it may sounds like I didn’t enjoy my experience, I highly recommend it for any fan of tennis, especially clay courts. Here are my tips:

  • Bring your own food! If you envisioned tennis with wine and cheese, I’m sorry to burst your bubble. The options are truly disappointing at the stadium, and overpriced. Stop by a grocery store or boulangerie before you head to Roland Garros and grab something fresh, and cheaper, instead.
  • Dress in layers. Since the major stadiums are open air, and weather in Paris in May can be a bit unpredictable, you’ll want to be ready for anything. On Day 2 I found myself shedding and redressing several times, as the temperature kept swinging.
  • Just go once. In the grand scheme of things, as much as I love tennis, one day would have done the trick, instead of spending nearly 200 euros to go twice. I’d rather have had the extra day to watch from a cafe, or do some extra sight-seeing. My feeling may be due, in part, to the fact that I regularly see top-flight tennis at the US Open, but with such a small venue, Day 2 just felt like deja vu to me.
  • Don’t discount Lenglen! Court Suzanne Lenglen may be the second tier stadium at Roland Garros, but for the same price as an upper bowl seat at Philippe-Chartrier, you can sit significantly closer. Even in the second mezzanine, I felt like I was practically sitting on-court when the little bit of tennis I saw there was played.

What about you? Have you been to The French Open? What was your experience like?

Trip Review - New York City (JFK) to London (Heathrow) - Virgin Atlantic - A340

In my last post, I briefed you on the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK, where I spent some time before this, my flight to Heathrow. Fun fact: I’d actually flown Virgin Upper Class once before, back in 2003, something I’d long-since forgotten. That was back in the day when Virgin was ridiculed for it’s “blue light” reading light, which I do, in fact, remember suffering through, and overcoming. One could say it was a character-building experience. This time around though, I’m old enough to appreciate the experience, and have an iPhone that can help me document the flight!

I’d be flying an overnight route, departing at 6:30PM and due in at 6:45AM GMT. I know many prefer the leave in the AM, arrive in the PM and crash strategy, but I was spending some time at my parent's house before leaving, and wanted to make the most of the opportunity to lounge by the pool. As such, this is a more limited review, as my flight was pretty straightforward: board, depart, eat, sleep, eat, arrive.

Hey, that's my seat!

Hey, that's my seat!

Upon boarding, waiting for me at my seat was a menu, along with my linens and toiletry kit. Unimpressed by the goods inside, but have to say I’m a big fan of the case itself, a Herschel creation. I’ll absolutely hang on to this and find a use for it in the future.

Virgin knows just what to say (and serve).

Virgin knows just what to say (and serve).

The seat itself is quite luxurious, and I’ll note that the angle is such that I didn’t even recline until midway through the flight! Found myself in the perfect position. My only complaint about the in-seat hardware would be the TV, which is clearly an older system. The touch response is slow and a bit moody, which made it bothersome to scroll through selections (I ultimately decided to watch two episodes of Luther and two of Family Guy). The audio mixing could also use a bit of work, as the balance between bass and treble was quite off. The cabin itself was about 2/3 full, so many passengers shuffled around after we fully boarded.

My pre-flight beverage was, naturally, a glass of champagne. Cheers to the experience! I was also completely won over by the menu card, which knows how to make a guy feel wanted (see photo above). In addition to the menu selections, which I’ll get to in a moment, inside is your breakfast card. Check out my order!

The English spelling of yogurt always makes me chuckle.

The English spelling of yogurt always makes me chuckle.

After a second glass of champagne (I assume the Captain made sure I had finished first), we got in line for take-off.

Always chasing tail.

Always chasing tail.

Once in the sky, I received my snack and dinner drink. I went for the Rioja (Spanish red), which were served with some Terra chips. Genuinely can’t remember the last time I ate those, but enjoyed the throwback.

This would lead right in to the beginning of our dinner service. A nice touch if you’re traveling with a companion: Virgin’s footrest doubles as a second chair, so you can sit together for dinner! On Virgin, there’s always a table for two! In an alternate reality, I ask a stranger to share the meal with me, and meet my future wife (or am written about as the creepiest guy in the skies on FlyerTalk/Boarding Area).

Dinner opened with a creamy spring onion soup, topped with crispy wonton strips and chivesThe taste was markedly improved when I added some pepper. For my main course, I went with the beef fillet, served in a bearnaise sauce and served with potatoes and asparagus. Although it looks poorly plated, it was actually quite good! Last time I flew Virgin I had the duck (again, this was over a decade ago), and it was so poorly prepared I haven’t been able to eat duck (though I try it from time to time) since.

Dessert was just…ugh. Color me disinterested.

A pairing of an orange mango, and caramel mousses.

A pairing of an orange mango, and caramel mousses.

After dinner, I got a few moments to chat with my FA, and slipped him a thank you card. He worked with a smile and kept my wine glass full, which I always appreciate. Was hoping to spend some time at the bar, but it was, in fact, quite crowded, and I had no intention of making new friends on this flight. Virgin staff is always ready with a drink though, and there are plenty of snacks available at the bar, including more Terra Chips.

I then donned my Virgin jammies, asked for a turndown, and crawled in to bed to nab 2-3 hours of sleep. Virgin’s pajamas lack a bit of the airline’s traditional pizzaz, and are a basic pair of black bottoms and a long-sleeve top. I didn’t take a photo because, quite frankly, I didn’t care for them or the fit. A welcome reprieve from my trousers though, and much better for sleep! As quickly as I was out, I was up, and it was time for breakfast service before the ground. It was a standard airline breakfast, but I quite liked the design on the mug!

I only remembered to take the picture halfway through.

I only remembered to take the picture halfway through.

After he took my tray, my FA came back around and slipped me a bag with a bottle of champagne, a bottle of red wine, and a pair of headphones. He wanted to thank me for thanking the crew! Was much appreciated, and I put it to good use in Paris.

And just like that, I was in London!

Bottom Line

Flying Virgin really is one of the best ways to hop across the Atlantic, and, in my opinion, offers one of the best airport-to-airport experiences, when paired with access to the Clubhouse. In-flight crews bring the right mix of knowing competence and friendliness to their role, making for an experience that feels not rehearsed, but perfected and reassuring. While the planes can sometimes feel a bit old, the food a bit bland, and the taxes high (if booking via Virgin), there's not much fundamentally wrong with the product Virgin brings to the skies.

Lounge Review - Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse @ New York City JFK

If you’ve caught me at all on our Twitter lately, you’ll know I’ve been traipsing my way around Western Europe for the past few weeks. What started as a plan to check out the 2016 Euro Cup with friends evolved in to a visit to the French Open, a week in Croatia, and nearly a month away from home. I guess that’s not so bad? Plus, its given me quite a bit to write about!

It all started some 6+ months ago (it was 2015), when I realized the tickets my friends and I nabbed for Euros were going to align near perfectly with the French Open. An avid tennis fan, and clay court fanatic, I had long dreamed of making it to Roland Garros for my favorite major. So, I went for it! Using a surplus of Delta SkyMiles (or SkyPesos, depending on your mood), I booked into Virgin Atlantic Upper Class for 62,500, and just $5 in additional fees/taxes. Can’t beat that! I’d be flying over to London, meeting a friend for breakfast, then head back to the airport to catch a quick one to Paris.

Since I booked into Upper Class, I’d have the chance to visit the much-lauded Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse at JFK, located in T4. Tough to say if I was more excited for the product on the ground or the one I’d soon experience in the skies!

Dedicated check-in for elites at JFK Terminal 4.

Dedicated check-in for elites at JFK Terminal 4.

Flying UC, you’re able to use the Sky Priority check-in area at T4, though as a Delta Diamond, this wasn’t anything new for me. A nice touch though, as always, is the free water given out there. Having just come from the AirTrain, I appreciated a quick hydration stop before security!

Once inside, T4 is a short walk in the “other” direction, what I refer to the A block of gates as, since I usually break right and head to the Delta wing. 

The VIrgin Clubhouse is located in the same area as The Emirates Lounge, and the Air India Maharaja Lounge, near the end of the wing. I neglected to take a photo of the entrance, but it's an open entryway with check-in desk, where you;re greeted, checked-in, and given a brief tour of the lounge (if a first-timer, like myself).

In size, the lounge is smaller than what I’m used to at JFK, but that’s because I spend much of my time at the SkyClub, one of Delta's flagships. However small it may actually be, this lounge ends up feeling quite large, as it’s rarely, from both my experience and word from others, quite crowded. The decor is modern, includes a pool table, and a plethora of seating options. Indecisive, I moved around three times.

Virgin lounges are probably most well-known for their spas, and I was absolutely going to take advantage of that opportunity before my journey. Much sleep was lost in the days and nights leading up to my trip, but I finally settled on the facial as my pre-flight treatment (you’re entitled to one, select free treatment). It was a relaxing reprieve before the flight. Without a doubt, go immediately to the spa upon your arrival to the club. Appointments book up quite quickly, and you don’t want to miss out!

Of course, I wasn’t just there to relax, but also begin a month’s worth of poor eating habits. This proved to be more difficult than I imagined, thanks to the paradox of choice. Just look at the menus!

I opened my drinking games with a West Side, which was better in theory than execution. It didn’t do much on the palette. 

One of the signature cocktails, The West Side.

One of the signature cocktails, The West Side.

On the food side, I paired this with the bone marrow (one of my favorite things!) poppers and fried squid. 

Top: Crispy squid with capers and lemon. Bottom: Bone marrow poppers!

Top: Crispy squid with capers and lemon. Bottom: Bone marrow poppers!

To close out the first portion of the meal, I went with the chicken korma. Yes, the truffled grilled cheese was calling my name, but I thought that might be a step too far before sitting on a plane for 6-7 hours. And not to worry, there was plenty of champagne to go around.

After dinner I had my spa appointment, which blended in to a nap as I get few moments of serenity in daily life. I think the technician delivering the treatment was quite proud I was relaxed enough to fall asleep during our session! Did the facial make any difference with how "hydrated" my skin felt during the flight? Absolutely not. Did I enjoy it nonetheless? Of course.

After the spa, I opted to forgo a proper dessert, in favor of the cheese plate and a bloody mary. My full satisfaction was foiled though, as one of these cheeses is my kryptonite. Care to fancy a guess?

Hint: it's at the top.

Hint: it's at the top.

And that was that! As I topped off this beverage and finished my cheese plate, it was off to my gate for the flight.

All in all, this was a top-notch lounge experience, and one of the finer ones I’ve ever visited. Highly encouraged if you ever have the chance while transiting at JFK!

Don't Miss This in Budapest!

Let's not beat around the bush: I'm excited to announce the start of a new series on the blog, "Don't Miss This!"

"Don't Miss This" is going to be our quick hit, have-to-do-this suggestion for the #1 thing to do, see, or try in the cities we've visited. Don't expect the Eiffel Tower to end up on our Paris review, or the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco. Each of these posts will review the slightly-less-than-famous attraction/restaurant/scene that really caught our eye, and spoke to our individual tastes and interests. 

First up in the series, my entry on my recent trip to Budapest.

Don't Miss This: The Hospital in The Rock

One thing Mike and I share is a passion for history. In fact, Mike was a history major at Hofstra University (on the other hand, I was a business major, which also probably explains why I'm much more energized by the credit card and manufactured spend game than Mike is)! When we travel, we're known to visit historical museums and off-the-beaten path monuments and memorials that pay tribute to some of our favorite stories from the annals of history. Visiting Budapest, the capital of Hungary in the heart of Central Europe, was an opportunity to engage with a history I had yet to encounter, paying my first-ever visit to a state that fell behind the Iron Curtain.

I paid a solo visit to Budapest in March of 2016 (via an incredible fare on Air Canada, and you can find my full write-up on The Flight Deal), and didn't do much prep prior to visiting. A family friend who was born and raised there, along with some Facebook crowdsourcing, were the only research I had to go on, so much of the trip was dictated by whatever caught my eye in the moment. When I heard about the Hospital in The Rock, I made an immediate detour to visit.

Underneath Buda Castle (one of Budapest's main attractions) exists over 10KM of naturally occurring caves. During WW2, and the Hungarian Revolution, a section of these caves were converted into a medical hospital, intended to service approximately 60 patients. At times, the load became so excessive there were more like 200, 300, or even 600 patients.

There are no photos inside the hospital, but if there were I'd have a boatload (and you can browse the on-line galleries). The museum has over 100 wax figures, displayed to help give context and meaning to exactly what went on within the hospital, and what life was like for patients. You'll see a double-bed operating room (highly against protocol), patients lying three to a bed, and even some who were forced to rest on the floor of the caves. Also on display are heaps of medical artifacts from the time period.

The entrance to the museum is on the west side of of Buda Hill, and the entry cost is 4000 forints (approx. 14$USD).

Fun Fact: There is an old Morpheus anesthesia machine inside the operating room, and this very machine was used in the filming of Evita, which was shot in Budapest!

EVA Air Royal Laurel Class Review

If you've been following us on Twitter (or have seen our blog lately), you know Mike and I just spent some time in Taiwan and Singapore. While I've got much to say on this trip, I'm writing a special update today on an experience that was entirely unexpected, and completely mind-blowing: I got a free upgrade to EVA Air Business Class from Taiwan to Singapore.

Mike and I first booked this trip in March of 2015 after seeing a fantastic fare deal from Philadelphia to Taiwan on Delta. With e-Certificates we had, the final price came to only $490 each, too good to pass up. Some months after booking, we decided to add a second destination to our trip, and settled on Singapore (which turned out to be a fortuitous choice, as my business was going to require a trip to Singapore as well...tax write-off!). Over the summer, we booked our flights on EVA (a bit more expensive than Tiger or Jet, but this included a meal, as well as an in-flight experience we were eager to test out).

A popular type of post around this space is on international travel mistakes, and initially it looked like this post might be one of those. EVA requires you to travel with the credit card you used at the time of booking, and as soon as we arrived at the airport in Philly, I realized I had left my Barclays Arrival Card (I booked the EVA flight using points) in my dresser at home. D'Oh! With minimal time to figure out how to manage not having the card, and arriving to Taipei over the weekend and departing Monday, I decided to cut my losses, apply for a refund, and re-book. In the end, it cost me $100 extra from the base far, but I was getting Premium Economy one way now (even if it was a middle seat). Update: I since got a $200 refund (about 2/3 of the ticket cost) from EVA. Not bad.

Arriving at the airport on the day of departure, and neglecting to check-in online (another fortuitous mistake), I was told by the ticket counter agent that there were window seats available in a 2x3x2 configuration (we were flying a 777), and asked if I would prefer that option.

"Absolutely."

After a brief stop at The More Premium Lounge, via Priority Pass, I sped over to the gate to experience the EVA Air boarding process, which was incredibly efficient (those needing additional time, families with children, then Zones 1-5). 

Our stallion for the day

Our stallion for the day

When Zone 2 was called, I was third in line, and excited and eager to get to my seat! When reaching the gate agent though, my ticket triggered a beeping noise in the scanner and turned it red. What was wrong?!

"Seat Assignment Conflict."

Uh-oh, there was no window seat for me!!

"Please see the agent at the desk."

Nope, it wasn't about the window seat at all. 

"Sorry sir, we have moved you to business class."

Waka, waka, WHAT! I glanced down at my ticket, SEAT 1G! 

I nearly lost it, I furiously tried to email Mike as we were boarding, but my WiFi cut out halfway down (as I typed this post in my seat, I enjoyed doing so knowing he has no idea this was happening). The best part? I would be experiencing not just business class, but business in Royal Laurel, EVA's new business class cabin, exclusive to the 777s in their fleet. The main perks include a lie-flat seat and amenity kit.

Afraid someone was going to figure out I was posing, or come take my ticket away, I timidly stepped on to the flight and avoided eye contact with the flight crew at first. When they saw my ticket, it turned out to be true...I was really in 1G, and was escorted to my seat. Guys, just look at this beauty...

Pardon my mess...

Pardon my mess...

Can't decide what looks better...my legs or the leg room...

Can't decide what looks better...my legs or the leg room...

After landing my butt in my seat, I was brought my choice of beverage (water or pineapple juice), along with a hot towel. I was also brought a pair of slippers and a newspaper of my choosing (WSJ of course). One last, and crucial, conversation before take-off: breakfast? There were three options (guess which I chose):

  1. Traditional: Congee
  2. Western: Eggs
  3. Royal Special: Beef Noodle Soup

If you guessed 1 or 2, that's very depressing, and you probably shouldn't go to Vegas or Macau. Beef Noodle Soup FTW.

After a smooth takeoff, meal service began with a round of tea and coffee. The coffee was much needed, but personally I was more enthused by the fairly nice placemat and impending glad of champagne to come with my meal.

Isn't this delightful!

Isn't this delightful!

Then came my meal. The soup was the highlight, plated along with several small sides, the best of which was the sweet cabbage in the upper right. 

Sorry guys, I was too excited to frame this well.

Sorry guys, I was too excited to frame this well.

Following the meal, we were served a dessert of pastries and fruit, though I opted only to enjoy a #basic roll.

A health-conscious dessert.

A health-conscious dessert.

Without any food to get in the way (and continued pours of champagne), it was time to take my seat for a test drive. The controls offered the typical flight settings of takeoff/landing, lounging, and sleeping, along with myriad other directional controls. While the seat is immensely comfortable, the controls and movements were, in my opinion, not very fluid. The seat seemed to jerk at times, but I can't really complain, as my feet and legs were in heaven after a hectic day of Taipei touring. Also, this leg room! 

And the movie: Two Days, One Night starring my Hollywood crush Marion Cotillard

And the movie: Two Days, One Night starring my Hollywood crush Marion Cotillard

Really, an incredible experience. Have any of you ever flown EVA's Royal Laurel Class? Let me know what you think in the comments below. Thanks again EVA, and cheers!

Yea, I stole the glass.

Yea, I stole the glass.

Lounge Review: Centurion Studio @ Seattle-Tacoma Int'l

If you read my last post on my mileage run through Seattle, then you know I had a lot of time to spend in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Mind? Why would I! As an American Express Platinum cardholder, this meant I'd have time to checkout the Seattle Centurion Studio, the "stepchild" of the Centurion Lounge system.

Located outside Gate B3, the Centurion Studio is a welcome lounge option is this sprawling airport. Coming from a Delta flight in the S Terminal, a ride in the airport tram was required, which was as efficient, clean, and timely as you would imagine.

The Studio itself is a tiny room, one that doesn't compare to the expanse of other Centurion Lounges, but it is my no means a lowly "studio."

Love this TV unit. It includes a wealth of magazines and newspapers for guests to take to enjoy on their flights.

Love this TV unit. It includes a wealth of magazines and newspapers for guests to take to enjoy on their flights.

I arrived at the Studio during lunchtime, and had quite an appetite. Traditionally, Centurion Lounge meals are a step above airline lounge options, specifically those from US carriers, and the Studio was no different. The options were all cold, but the quality was clearly turned up a notch.

For "snacking", there were plenty of vegetables and breads available, with spreads for both. It tok everything in my power not to nosh on a breadstick.

Includes a red pepper hummus (front row, second from right).

Includes a red pepper hummus (front row, second from right).

The main options were both sandwiches, which meant I, as someone who tries to limit his carb intake, would have to go through the always head-turning process of peeling my sandwiches apart once I got back to my seat. Worth it. Also worth it? The plate of pickles I stole soon after I took this photo.

In front: a roasted vegetable wrap. In back: a prosciutto baguette. 

In front: a roasted vegetable wrap. In back: a prosciutto baguette. 

What to drink, what to drink? The Studio doesn't have a bar, unlike Lounges, but there is alcohol available upon request from the service staff patrolling the Studio. The Studio also goes the extra mile and has about four local brews on tap, a nice way to be able to experience a taste of Seattle if you're only in town for a layover. While waiting for the beer, I did grab a glass of this Raspberry Agua Fresca though, and the hint of honey is exactly as described.

How refreshing!

How refreshing!

The Studio also had some great dessert options, and I'll let those speak for themselves.

Yup, that's a FULL German Chocolate Cake!

Yup, that's a FULL German Chocolate Cake!

A hazelnut tart and lemon bar. The lemon bar absolutely melted in your mouth.

A hazelnut tart and lemon bar. The lemon bar absolutely melted in your mouth.

Now, again, if you've read the blog post, you know I had to spend the night in Seattle, which means I would get to enjoy a second meal at the Studio: breakfast! I consider this a platinum lining. 

While it can't compare to the eggs benedict I always nab at the Centurion Lounge at LGA, the breakfast choices here offered some interesting flavors I'm not used to enjoying at the airport.

Front right: a vegetarian egg strata, with broccoli. Back left: Pine nut spinach roll. Was willing to break my carb rule for these!

Front right: a vegetarian egg strata, with broccoli. Back left: Pine nut spinach roll. Was willing to break my carb rule for these!

A wide selection of breakfast pastries, all of them of the sugary sweet variety.

A wide selection of breakfast pastries, all of them of the sugary sweet variety.

Celebrating my departure, I also ordered a glass of sparkling wine (I'm pretty sure it wasn't champagne, but I didn't see it on the menu to cross-check), and paired that with the all-essential AM coffee.

Cup o' joe?

Cup o' joe?

All in all, another great lounge from AMEX. The Centurion network continue to be the best lounge option available (to me at least) in all the airports they operate in.

Until next time!

Until next time!


My Snowy Seattle Mileage Run

After a long time out, I’m back in the running game.

Until last year, I had been without Delta (my preferred airline, deal with it) status of any kind since 2010. Starting a business hadn’t left me with much time, or money, to pursue my flying passion, so I’d pushed mileage runs and status-searching to the back-burner. Let me tell you, it was a trying time. Boarding with commoners? Limited amounts of Biscoff cookies and no at-my-demand (free) Woodford Reserve? Elbowing for overhead bin space? I would spend weeks with the shakes after simple shuttle flights from NYC to DCA.

Last year though, I was able to get back to what I love, and at least registered on the board as a Silver Medallion. At year’s end, I was within striking distance of Gold (<5K MQM), but decided to hold off. While that did mean a few extra months of lowly Silver status, knowing what my schedule looked like, I knew I would be making a play for a higher tier within just the first quarter of 2016. Waiting meant enjoying the status longer, and achieve it faster, with my rollover MQMs (for more on the pros/cons of rollover MQMs and EoY status runs, see this great series of posts from my friend Rene).

With my hefty rollover balance, a bit of scheduled travel, and sign-up for a Delta Reserve Card, I was up to Gold by January 19, and on Delta’s radar. Laying out my schedule, I would be Platinum by May or so, and that was just with the travel I had scheduled thus far. However, I wanted more. To take full advantage of PM, I wanted it sooner, so I scheduled a pair of mileage runs to help me get there.

The crowning achievement and subject of today’s post? A scheduled run on Friday February 5: JFK-SEA-SAN-LAX-JFK. I’d depart at 7AM and return at 7:30AM Saturday. Working from the road, it would be an easy day.

Getting to Seattle

I’ve never been to Seattle before, so I was excited to fly through, even if it was just to visit the airport, Centurion Studio (post to come), and see the skyline. Delta flies a 757 on this route, and for all intents and purposes, it’s Delta One (in fact, it actually was for a time). The lie flat seat is a real plus on this 5hr flight, especially at 7AM on a Friday.

Nice about this route is that you CAN get a complimentary Medallion upgrade. As a GM, I started the list about 27/45, but that wasn’t dissuading me from some #TeamBoardLast. Funnily enough, the gate agent remembered me from earlier in the week, when I’d done the very same on a flight to SLC! 

The wait was long and stressful, compounded by snow outside, but soon the flight was all but fully boarded, with 1 seat in first un-boarded and me sitting 1/1 on the upgrade list. Could it be? YUP, I NABBED A LIE-FLAT WITH #TEAMBOARDLAST.  Should be obvious I was pretty excited. The best part was the DM seated in Economy Comfort who raised a stink that his RUC should have been honored even though he boarded. Silly Medallion.

The product was really great, and I REALLY got to enjoy it thanks to a long (3+ hours) tarmac delay. Shoutout to the Delta app for letting me rebook my first connection! The breakfast was the standard Delta omelette for me, which I’ve really come to appreciate lately. In addition to a nap, I watched Our Brand is Crisis, which was just okay.

Getting to San Diego

Or am I?

Arriving in Seattle, I had two hours to kill before jumping down to SAN. After spending some time at Centurion Studio, I moved toward the gate, when my phone lit up with some “exciting” news: my flight was delayed. Normally, this was not an issue at all. Normally, I also wouldn’t have a connection to LAX and a flight back to New York. Oy vey.

Weighing the options, I decided that since I’d never been to Seattle before, I'd claim a hotel voucher so I could make my way back Saturday. I also was NOT going to fly direct home. MQMs people! Delta gave me accommodations at the Red Lion Inn in Renton, which I wish on no man. It was fine for a night, but in addition to a grimy towel on the bathroom floor, the thermostat was ripped off the wall, so there was no temperature control. 

Seattle was great though, and I’m excited to head back. In my few hours there, I was able to check out the first Starbucks, Space Needle, and had an incredible dinner at The Walrus and The Carpenter.

 

Getting Home

The return journey also had 3 legs to it, and brought me in at just a few MQMs less than my original routing. Great, because I also got to skip the red eye!

The first flight of the day was a hopper down to LAX, but it was a packed flight. No upgrades to be had, but was in an aisle Economy Comfort that did the job.

The new routing home was going to take me through MSP en route to LGA, and I was fortunate enough to nab upgrades on both. I rarely fly direct to LA anyway so this is a regular routing for me, and one I really enjoy. I get two comfortable seats, and two great meals!

Our MSP flight was during lunch, and I was aching for the Delta burger. Unfortunately not to be had. Instead, I entered the Calzone zone and was NOT disappointed. More carbs than I like, but really delicious! Much recommended if you ever have the chance, and don’t skip on the chocolate cake. It taste a bit like a Yodel and was worth every morsel. For in-flight entertainment, I re-watched Straight Outta Compton. Delta nailed it with movies this month. I’m excited to see what March has! 

You are now entering the Calzone Zone.

You are now entering the Calzone Zone.

Without much time to transfer in MSP, I went straight to my gate, which had already begun boarding. Shot at this point, I slept through most of the flight, but did find time for dinner, a just okay turkey salad. The other option was fish with rice, which I’ve been hearing mixed reviews of lately. Satisfied, I fell asleep to Jurassic Park on Delta Studio on my iPhone. One of my favorite films.

I've had better, I've had worse.

I've had better, I've had worse.

All in all, a great run I don’t regret a moment of! Fantastic crews and assistance all around, and I’m satisfied knowing it sped up the Medallion process. Next run? I’m heading to Dallas for a 1-dayer via SLC in March. Let’s cross some fingers for a lie-flat on the way home (or I’m using a RUC. I need some sleep!). 

By The Numbers

MQM: 5,931

Cost: $280

CPM: 4.7 

What's In The Bag - February 5, 2016

Tomorrow I'm off for what was supposed to be my first milage run of the year. Of course, that was until Rene, over at Rene's Points, posted a few weeks ago about a run he was planning to MSY via SLC from JFK. Why settle for one run in a week when you could do two!?

The Route: I head west on Delta tomorrow (2/5/16), departing JFK for Seattle on an early 7AM flight. After a short layover, it's south to San Diego where I'll have six hours to tour the zoo and grab a quick bite (I'll eat outside for sure!). At 8PM, it's north to LAX, where my Medallion Upgrade already cleared, and then in the dark of night it's back to JFK on the red eye, where I should be landing right around 7:30AM. An easy day of running:

  • Total MQM: 6,446
  • Cost: $290
  • CPM: 4.5
Like all great packers, I'm traveling with just a backpack tomorrow.

Like all great packers, I'm traveling with just a backpack tomorrow.

What's in the bag:

  • Despite the bounty of snacks available to me in the basket the FAs will bring me in Comfort Plus, one must always be prepared. That's why I'm traveling with a KIND Oats & Honey Square.
  • Never leave home without a pack of chewing gum or mints. Tomorrow, it's Extra Winterfresh, which I buy in bulk from Costco.
  • Ever the techie, I can't leave home without my lipstick (portable iPhone charger) or 4G hotspot. Having WiFi everywhere means I can work on the road during these weekday runs!
  • With loads to do before the weekend, my Macbook Air will be making the trip as well.
  • I've got my fingers crossed the sun will be shining in San Diego, so I'll bring my trust Warby Parker shades along for the trip (model: Haskell).
  • I'm old fashioned, so I still use a paper and pen. Moleskine notebook and Muji pen? Check and check.
  • It's going to be a LONG day, so for the sake of the society, I've got a deodorant stick and toothbrush/toothpaste in the bag as well. Thanks to the Hotel HD Palace in Taipei for the dental hygiene kit!
  • I just finished my last book (Mad as Hell, a story about the history of the movie Network, a personal favorite), so I've got two books in two for this journey:
    • Built to Sell: A business partner has long nagged me to read this, and it's a quick read, so I figure this will be done before I touch down in Seattle. The main idea? Design your business to be as attractive to potential buyers as possible Build a company that relies on your personal involvement as little as possible
    • How to Run the World: Parag Khanna is a new client, and I'm in the process of familiarizing myself with his past work. This, his second book, is another thoughtful look at the future of international relations.
  • Not pictured: cell phone, computer charger.

And with that, I'm off!

 

 

What is Two if by Air? Part 2

First of all, if you're a fan of our blog, a big thanks. We're still in the early stages of getting this thing off the ground, and while we wanted to wait to go live until we had lots of content to share, we didn't want to sit idly by and not be publishing, because hey, we're New Yorkers, and we've got a lot of things to say.

When we sat down to start this blog, we spent a lot of time talking about all the places we wanted to go (Mike: Ulaan Batar, Jonathan: Door to Hell), and a non-insignificant amount establishing what it is Two if by Air represents.

One thing we want to establish straightaway is that we aren't going to be your source for airline deals, credit card maximization strategies, or the best milage redemptions. For each and every one of these subjects there is a real expert out there, be it the folks over at The Points Guy, Frugal Travel Guy, The Flight Deal, or Renes Points. These are the people we read every day, these are the folks we look to for advice, and while we may have some differing opinions, we're never going to be better then them at their bread and butter, and, more importantly, we're only going to add more noise to the conversation. Sure, we'll tweet a good deal if we see one, but don't follow us for that purpose, or you'll be sorely disappointed.

So if not any of these, then what? Consider this the second in an undefined series on the mission and beliefs of Two if by Air.

The Primary Principle of Two if by Air: All Travel is Relative.

When we talked about forming the blog, the one thing we both agreed on is that we aren't here to provide a bulletin board to memorialize our own opinions that we could genuflect on for years to come. We're not here to identify universal truths, or tell you the best way to use your miles. Why? Because if there's one thing we value above all else, it's the idea that there is no lowest common denominator in travel, no universal base point to make comparisons from.

A "great redemption" is only great insofar as it's somewhere you want to go. Sure, you could redeem miles at 3.1 cents for a RT ticket to Singapore, but what if Singapore means nothing to you, and you've always wanted to go to Thessaloniki instead? Should you not go because it's a 2.2 cent redemption value instead? Absolutely not, and you shouldn't be made to feel like you did something wrong because of that. We all seem to value building the credit card strategy or butt-in-seat strategy that "works for you," but sometimes forget that the destination matters for some folks as much as the ride.

For instance, one thing that drove us mad in 2015 was Sam Huang's story about his "round-the-world" Emirates ticket for $300. From what we've  been able to tell, it seems like Eddie had the trip of a lifetime, but didn't really spend much time in any city, instead he was "in transit" in a destination or three, but really just along for the ride. As quasi-insiders, we love this. We're both single, have no attachment to our homes, and love spending time in airports and on planes. However, when it comes to spreading the gospel of this game, we think it unfortunate when stories like these make headlines, as they're both inaccurate and inaccessible to those new to this arena by the time they hit the mainstream. Eddie didn't get there overnight, and while it's an aspirational goal for sure (hey, we're jealous!), it's not exactly a nice (or affordable) vacation to Sydney, which is what many are in the market for.

So, if you're joining us here, expect to get our take, and our take alone, on what it is that makes this game, and travel, so much fun. We'll review our experiences, interview each other on travel, share some of our tips, and see how things evolve from there. 

We'll never say there's a right way, but we'll tell you our way.

7 Stages of Brunch at the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi

As you know, I'm just back from a week in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, thanks to a really great fare from Eithad Airways. Our trip was split between five days in Dubai and three in Abu Dhabi, which worked out to our advantage, as it allowed us to participate in the emerging Abu Dhabi trend of Friday brunch.

Brunch is, for better or worse, one of America's great exports of the past five years. Sure, brunch is internationally recognized, but it was those of us in America who deified, commoditized, and marketed brunch into a new level of fame. For the record, brunch happens if you are seated before 12:30PM. If you sit down at 1:00 or 2:30, you can still eat breakfast foods, but that's lunch. Feel free to not comment on this below, because I know I'm right, you're wrong, and you'll never admit it. 

Anyway, brunch in Abu Dhabi has taken on a life of its own, and puts any other brunch I have ever attended to shame. This being our last day, we decided to go all out with our brunch, and settled on Oléa restaurant at the St. Regis Saadiyat Island. This St. Regis is about twenty minutes outside the city proper, with an extensive property that includes both a hotel and residences.

From the main building lobby, there is a breathtaking view of the Persian Gulf that you could swear you once saw on a postcard. In a moment, you're swept into a world of luxury and exclusivity that only St. Regis can create.

Just look at those waters!

Just look at those waters!

Downstairs, beneath the main lobby, exists the St. Regis' two main restaurants, Oléa and 55&5TH. Though you must make a reservation at one, you may freely hop between both restaurants, as the brunch is an all-you-can-eat (and all-you-can-dream) buffet. Our reservation was at Olea, and we were fortunate enough to snag a table outside, overlooking the water and with a clear line of sight to the band. When we arrived at the table the third place setting had its back to the water, and as I was going to have that chair, I promptly re-set the table...no way was I missing out on this view.

 

Which way ya headed?

Which way ya headed?

It's hard to describe exactly what happens at brunch at the St. Regis...much like the "Saint" in the St. Regis name, this was a religious culinary experience for me. I could walk you through all the stations, but I think you'll be best served by learning through my plates of food. Let's begin:

Plate 1: Foie Gras and Sushi

55&5TH is the smaller of the two restaurants, but was home to one of the brunch's most wondrous tables: the foie gras station. Yes ladies and gentlemen, an entire buffet station devoted to foie gras.

My best friend - the foie gras chef.

My best friend - the foie gras chef.

Naturally, I would have to have some foie gras first, as I wasn't going to miss out on the chance to eat dishes that would help me quickly earn back the cost of today's bill (trust me, there was work to be done). The platter came will some perfect dressings, notably the fig jam. 

Because I'm adventurous, I paired the foie gas with some assorted sushi and sashimi. The fish was quite alright, but the spicy mayo and wasabi lacked the punch I've grown accustomed to.

Left: foie gras platter. Right: sushi and sashimi selection, with seaweed salad and spicy mayo.

Left: foie gras platter. Right: sushi and sashimi selection, with seaweed salad and spicy mayo.

Drink Pairing: There was an orange bloody mary served with smoked salmon. I had to have it.

Just look at that! Orange bloody mary with smoke salmon.

Just look at that! Orange bloody mary with smoke salmon.

Plate 2: The Fish Course

Before going up for plate 2, I had ordered a glass of red wine (Malbec), expecting to enjoy some of the meat courses. However, this plan was thrown out when I locked eyes on the raw fish bar.

Crab legs, razor clams, mussels...oh my!

Crab legs, razor clams, mussels...oh my!

Take a look at that. Just LOOK at that. Everything you could want, all in one place.

Razor clams, mussels, crab legs, octopus, and more, found their way to my plate. The crab legs were a standout, and I would argue that they may be some of the best I have ever had.

Had my fill of the seafood bar, with everything from octopus to razor clams.

Had my fill of the seafood bar, with everything from octopus to razor clams.

Drink Pairing: Malbec

Plate 3: Meat. Meat. Meat.

This was the one I was waiting for. As my friends and I walked to our table upon arrival to Olea, we did a cursory overview of the buffet offerings, and we all gasped when we saw the standout dish: a waffle topped with poached egg, hollandaise sauce, and 13-hour braised beef cheeks. I'll take a moment to share a photo and let you catch your breath. 

Commence drooling....now.

Commence drooling....now.

Hours had passed until I could enjoy this treat, and now was the time. Accompanying this on my plate were a veal hot dog, a veal hot dog topped with sriracha shrimp, and an oyster po boy. 

#Winning

#Winning

All were delicious, but nothing held a candle to the Waffles Benedict, the flavors of which brought a tear to my eye for their perfection.

Drink: Whiskey, rocks.

I should now mention exactly how alcohol works at this brunch. Sans alcohol, the buffet alone is 300DH, with alcohol it's 395DH, and with champagne it's 495DH. We went for the middle package, which we thought gave us access to all NINE (yes NINE) bars at brunch, each with a different theme/featured liquor. Unfortunately, there was a top shelf/middle shelf dilenation, which meant that while I could have Jack Daniel's, I couldn't get Jack Single Barrel. Oh well, worse things...

The whiskey and bourbon bar outside 55&5TH.

The whiskey and bourbon bar outside 55&5TH.

Plate 4: The scraps

I wasn't done yet, so I went back for a few highlights: more crab legs, one more po boy, and two new features: a veal meatball, and some quail!

 A few last bites.

 A few last bites.

Drink Pairing: The red wine kept flowing from here on out.

Plate 5: Cheese!

Well, I forgot to take a photo of the plate I had created, but one of the most important aspects of St. Regis brunch is the cheese room. Yes, an entire room devoted to cheese. A singular room, with one long banquet table and its own chef, devoted entirely to cheese. Hard cheeses, soft cheeses, stinky cheeses, fragrant cheeses. Cheese of all shapes, sizes, and colors. In an instant, I left Abu Dhabi and was transported to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, only this time the chocolate was cheese, and your Charlie had a hell of a lot more facial hair.

Inside the cheese room at the St. Regis.

Inside the cheese room at the St. Regis.

Plate 6: Dessert. Round 1.

Dessert was an experience in and of itself. From a macaroon tree, to a s'mores bar, to a gelato cooler, the dessert quadrant of the buffet was an ACTUAL Willy Wonka factory. 

That indigenous piece of UAE flora, the Macaroon Tree.

That indigenous piece of UAE flora, the Macaroon Tree.

Like a hawk trying to identify the weakest member of the pack, I circled the tables several times trying to identify which treats would be the first to fall to my appetite.

The initial selections: an apple crumble (I make better), a banana cake with chocolate sauce, and a mousse with ingredients I can't remember.

Is that river of chocolate sauce what Bruce Springsteen sang about on "The River".

Is that river of chocolate sauce what Bruce Springsteen sang about on "The River".

Plate 7: This is the end. 

I would not end my meal with one dessert plate...no. There was still a bit more room in my stomach, and I would not leave until I busted a seam. So, back for more.

This time: a raspberry panna cotta, caffè latte gelée with dark chocolate and hazelnut, a macaroon and, in the lower right, the piece de resistance.

So many colors, so many desserts!

So many colors, so many desserts!

To be honest with you, I had no idea what this little dome was when I took it off the display tray. I just saw chocolate, and knew this was something I was in the mood for. Then I bit into it.

Guys, IT WAS THE ST. REGIS VERSION OF A MALLOMAR, AND IT HAD A CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIE AS THE BASE.

Almost offensive my hand sullies the photo of this impressive cookie.

Almost offensive my hand sullies the photo of this impressive cookie.

Upon discovery, my table promptly freaked out, and both friends who had not seen this dessert leapt from the table and beelined for the dessert table. Together, we cheered our find and completed a marathon brunch.

Three hours. Seven plates. One unforgettable meal. Oh, and this pen I stole. Thanks guys!

I will use this in good spirits.

I will use this in good spirits.

What is Two if by Air? Part 1

Jonathan (I call him Jon but this sets a formal, proper tone for my first post) and I have long thought about starting a blog/writing down our thoughts about travel and our adventures trekking around the globe. So for my first post I'd like to just give my own personal stance on what I see this blog becoming.


First off, I love travel. Anything and everything associated with it. Airports, airplanes, the happy feeling when booking a trip, the anxious night before a trip, the thrilling feeling of take-off, the excitement I get from looking out the window (which is why I always try for a window seat), the ride on the way to the airport...

Like Jon mentioned, this won't be the blog to get the best, latest, and greatest in points travel and fare sales. We're much more interested in the thrill of the adventure and the entirety of the process, from the initial planning stages all the way to arriving back home after a great trip. That is what we aim for -  to give people an idea of how we like to travel, tips about the places we visit, and opening up a dialogue to help/encourage people to get out there and explore this wonderful planet of ours.
 

As background on myself: I used to work for a major airline as a cross-trained ground agent. This means I was regularly working the ticket counter, the gate, and also marshaling planes and working baggage. After a delayed flight, you may have even yelled at me once! Currently, I'm a corporate travel agent, and very soon will be moving into our product division and becoming the regional product and hotel relationship manager for the Midwest (to include some southern cities and Miami, which I will definitely not complain about). I plan on giving my perspective on my business travel as well as personal.

Jon and I are very similar when it comes to how we travel and our general thoughts on the industry, which is why we like to go on trips together and eventually decided to start this blog. However, we do disagree on some things and that is a HUGE part of what we want this blog to be. We will always give our honest opinions and at times you will see us disagree on subjects. A big part of our philosophy will be to give our readers the blunt truth of what we believe, basically an "I calls em how's I sees 'em" approach. Something I'm very excited about is the prospect of answering reader questions on anything travel industry related. As I said above, I have both worked for an airline and a travel agency, and I think I have a unique perspective on many different topics. Please feel free to message us and I'll do my best to help with any questions you may have.


So, to finalize, thank you for reading our blog and we really appreciate the support. Our goal is to inspire our readers to travel and experience this world on their own terms. If you want to take a trip and have the money - book it. Of course, points and miles are absolutely wonderful and help millions of us achieve goals we never could on our own. You know what though? That doesn't mean you shouldn't take a trip because you don't have the points. I booked a trip to Denver for my best friends birthday in first class on Delta. Did I pay too much coming from New York? Yeah probably, considering the economy price and what I could have done with the extra money. But, it was for a very close friend and we had an awesome time (staff at the Westin Denver downtown were amazing!) so I would absolutely do it again in a heartbeat. 
I hope this helps to understand how we

want this blog to move forward in the future and gives a background on how we are approaching this. Thank you again and remember, there's always more to see so keep looking ahead.

How Much Does That Cost? Or, How I Learned to Stop Questioning and Enjoy Dubai.

We all remember the Christmas 2014 spat of "really good deals" (that one's for you GodSaveThePoints) on Etihad, with RT fares in the 200s to Abu Dhabi. Like many of us, I jumped on the deal (though Mike had to back out) and booked a trip with two college friends for November 2015. Hard to believe but, 11 months later, this trip had finally come to fruition.

I'll probably be breaking down the experience myriad ways over the next few weeks, from a review of the hotel (we stayed at the Sheraton Dubai Creek in Dubai, and the Courtyard Marriott WTC in Abu Dhabi), to the best sights, and Mike may even interview me about the trip, but I wanted to start by giving you my top 4 tips on how to make your Dubai experience a great one. 

  1. Set Your Expectations: I won't beat around the bush here: Dubai won't rank highly on my list of best cities I've ever been to, and part of that is my own fault. Rather than being prepared to experience the shrine to consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and excess that this city represents, I was instead hoping to have a cultural journey in the Middle East (and yes, I understand how Western that sounds). Though I studied/lived in Morocco in 2009, I hadn't been back to the region since, and was eagerly awaiting this trip as an opportunity to once again immerse myself in a regional culture I truly enjoy. Doing so, however, was unfair to Dubai. Dubai is many things, but one thing it isn't is a cultural experience. It is an economic experience. It is endless exposure to stimuli for all the five senses. However, escaping the rush of all that requires intention, and the first step in that is setting your expectations. You're not going somewhere with souks that have hundreds of years of history. You're not going somewhere that has developed it's own culinary identity. You're in a country that is 44 years old, a center of commerce, and a city that presents, more than anywhere else I've ever been, an opportunity to see and be seen. If you accept that, then you can plan your trip, and your mindset, accordingly.
  2. Have a budget/spending plan: Remember how I just said this place is a hotbed of commerce and capitalism? Yea, I can't make that point enough. Money talks in Dubai, just about everywhere. While I certainly didn't travel thriftily this time around (sometimes, it's about letting loose a bit), even when you want to conserve, Dubai doesn't make it easy. For starters, this isn't a walkable city (more on that in a minute), and the ways to save a dime are few and far between. For my eyes, affordable meals aren't as easy to spot as other places I've traveled, and I found myself expending a bit of extra effort when I wanted to hunt down somewhere I could grab a 15DH shawarma. Now, I may have missed some tips on the best areas for this, but I'm also not used to this being something hard to find! By the way, want a beer or glass of wine with dinner? Be prepared to pay New York prices, or higher. Moral of the story: give yourself a budget, and stick to it. Dubai doesn't have a lot of big ticket adventures (visiting the top of the Burj was great, but I don't consider it a requirement for the price), but dining out adds up quickly. If you haven't planned your accommodations well, you''ll also find yourself spending more than you anticipated on cabs, which reminds me...
  3. Be sure to do your research! I said it above, and I'll say it again: Dubai is not a walkable city, and public transit leaves something to be desired. The Sheraton is in the Deira area, fortunately, is right on the water. As such, we had easy access to the water taxi which, for 6DHs RT, took us up to the Bur Dubai area, where most of the major tourist attractions are. Throw in 2DHs RT for the Abra across the river, and you have an affordable, $1.50 mode of transit. However, stay a little further from the water, a little further from the Metro or a bus line, and you'll be taking cabs everywhere. Beyond that, a poorly planned itinerary for the day that has you criss-crossing the city can mean lots of extra cab fees and time spent in traffic.
  4. Get out of Dubai, and Visit Sharjah. At the end of the day, I found Dubai, more than Las Vegas, or Macau,  more like adult Disney World than any other city can claim to be. Overpriced night clubs (no thanks), expensive cars (pretty to look at, but I'm good), overpriced but average food, and more, are just the simple examples of how fabricated of an experience Dubai can be. However, but twenty minutes away lies the city of Sharjah, the buttoned-up older sister (and I mean that in a good way) to Dubai's wild child lifestyle. I visited Sharjah on my second-to-last full day in Dubai, but certainly wish I had gone earlier. Sharjah was described to me as a more "blue collar" town, and the role of Islam there quickly became more apparent, as I learned the city is completely dry, and knees and shoulders must be covered. I started my visit there, as you should, at the Museum of Islamic Civilization, which houses exhibits on the history of Islam, Islamic art and architecture, Islamic science and discovery, and coinage, and all better exhibits than any museum I visited in Dubai. Start here, as you can then walk along the water south, bringing you back to some of Sharjah's other highlights, including the Al Majaz Waterfront, Souk Al Arash, and the Sharjah Heritage Museum. Sharjah gave me the burst of culture (I hate saying that, as it makes me sound like I was looking to be entertained...if someone has a better word, please educate me) or at least "realness", I had been looking for.
Personally, my favorite part of Sharjah was my run-in with the Birds and Animals Market, an experience I've found you can only really have in the Middle East.

Personally, my favorite part of Sharjah was my run-in with the Birds and Animals Market, an experience I've found you can only really have in the Middle East.

Been to Dubai? What advice do you have for first-time travelers there? 

5 Things I Loved About My SFO-JFK JetBlue Mintxperience

As I mentioned in my last post, my airline loyalties lie with Delta. However, monogamy in air travel has never really been my thing. A great deal on Air Canada? Sure, I could go to Budapest (and I am, in March). Fly Etihad direct from JFK to Abu Dhabi? I see no reason why not. But my long-term mistress has always been JetBlue. Or at least, it had been, but the story of the souring of our affair is a different blog post for a different day. 

My day job frequently brings me to the West Coast (hello fast track to Medallion Status), and current transcon products from the major carriers have a ludicrous price tag (even though I bill my clients for travel, I have a conscience). However, before a recent trip out to San Francisco, I did a "let's see what happens" search for Mint availability, and found a seat for the lowest possible fare. I'm no idiot. I jumped on the ticket and marked my calendar.

(Important disclaimer: Many will say I AM an idiot for paying for first class airfare. I don't really care about those people. I valued this experience, and travel is about doing want YOU want to do, and I wanted this.)

My Mint experience, or as I have taken to calling it, my Mintxperience, was kicked off by an email from JetBlue 24hrs before departure, telling me they had automatically checked me in. Of course, I didn't discover this until I opened the app and quizzically searched for the check-in option that didn't exist.

In-flight, my experience was marked by a few notable highlights:

1. The flight attendants leave you a welcome note.

Well hello to you too Marareth and Angela!

Well hello to you too Marareth and Angela!

Flight attendants, and the entire flight crew, make or break a flight experience. Not just as it relates to getting me somewhere safely (and soundly, of course), but their smiles make me smile, their enthusiasm makes me excited, and their love for their job makes me love flying even more. That's part of the reason I love to fly Delta and JetBlue so much: even when I have a problem with the product, the in-flight service makes me forget there was ever an issue, just like world-class service should.

So, after boarding at SFO and finding my seat, I was more than excited to discover this welcome note from Margareth and Angela, the two angels who would be bringing me to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. When Margareth first came over to take my pre-flight drink order, I felt like I already knew her (unfortunate for her, great for me)! Pictured above is the card, along with my sleep mask and blanket.

2. The headphones are world class.

At my office, we have an open floor plan that means we all hear anything and everything someone does, from an elongated sigh to a sneeze. Our relationship with in-office music ebbs and flows, and we go from periods of having an "in-office DJ" (the person who gets on Airplay the fastest), to complete silence with personal "spheres of sound" (headphones). 

One of the more trying times was when one of my partners bought headphones from Grado Labs, based in Brooklyn. Certainly, they're structurally sound, visually-appealing in a modern minimalist way, and produce high-quality audio, but they also leak sound...like, a lot. Our office quickly went from the best of times to the worst of times, and after a few months, he was finally convinced to abandon these headphones.

However, just when I thought I was done with them, they pull me back in. JetBlue partners with Grado to provide headphones for the Mintxperience, and now I know why: they're great. I did not want to give them up when I deplaned. If you fly Mint, grab these, stow them in your carry-on, and feel great about your completely harmless heist.

3. How about this menu?!

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

A lot has been written about the quality of the food the Mintxperience offers, and I'll fall right in line with the rest of the travel-world and agree...it's some of the best in the sky. Just take a look at the menu:

The pear appetizer was the lowlight of the meal for me, but great because it meant things could only go up from there. As a dish, it was a bit oversaturated and way too tart of a way to start a meal.

Brunch time! From left to right: turkey chili, frittata, kale cobb.

Brunch time! From left to right: turkey chili, frittata, kale cobb.

The entrees were hard to decide between for me (but less so for the guy in front of me, who had three chilis), and I settled on (as they're pictured below) the chili, frittata, and kale cobb. In terms of deliciousness, I'd actually rank them in the reverse order as they're pictured here. If you can believe it, the kale cobb rocked my socks off (though not actually, I keep my socks on for flights).

Dessert was acceptable, but only worth exactly as much space as I'm giving it right now.

4. The RefreshMint - JetBlue's signature cocktail and the perfect send-off.

After settling in, Margareth came by my "studio apartment" to give me the Mintxperience play-by-play. At the close of her lovingly delivered monologue, she offered me the RefreshMint, JetBlue's signature cocktail, created exclusively for the Mint cabin. While it was a 7AM flight I was hoping to work on, I was told I couldn't pass this up, a cocktail with honey-infused limeade, fresh mint and vodka. Worth it for sure!

5. Complete privacy.

The trick for the perfect Mint experience lies not just in flying Mint, but in cabin seat selection. JetBlue has converted an A321 for the Mintxperience, with 5 rows of Mint class. The key? If you're flying alone (or love your privacy), snag a seat in rows 2 or 4. Once the privacy screen is closed, you all but have created your own personal suite on the plane. For what I paid for the ticket, the experience far surpassed that of a studio apartment in NYC, which this was just as big as!


Of course, there are always areas for improvement, and one thing I would love to see JetBlue do a better job of is optimize storage space. As I recall, there were about five unique storage locations ensuite, but most were small and non-functional, e.g. they could hold a cell phone or a pen, but not much more. The largest option could contain books or an iPad, but struggled to fit my 13" MacBook Air. Further, its location made for an uncomfortable reach to remove items from. A minor inconvenience for sure, but my observation.

Was it worth it?

If you're someone who regularly flies the NYC-SFO/LAX route and values comfort and service, then Mint, if you can afford it, is for you. I haven't flown Delta One yet (YET), but until then, Mint is the right product, on the right route, at the right price.

Why I Haven't Flown American

If you know me, which most, if not all, of you don't, you know I have no reservations about admitting my general disdain for American Airlines. At 26, I haven't flown them in over a decade, and have actively paid more, and traveled at inconvenient times, in an effort to avoid American. Since I've last flown American, I've become a Delta loyalist, where I have status, dabbled in JetBlue, experienced (and survived) Southwest/Airtran, and enjoyed a laugh at the expense of United Airlines.

However, all that changes today, October 15, 2015. I recently won tickets to the Chicago Seminars on points and miles, thanks to the folks over at The Points Guy. Mike and I had been joking about attending this event for a number of months, so winning these tickets was a shock, but one that all but mandated we drop everything, change our schedules, and make the pilgrimage to Chicago for the event.

Sitting at my computer the night we got the news, my airfare search began as it always does, going to Delta, Hipmunk, and ITA Matrix. Having earned Silver on Delta so far this year, I was hoping to add another flight segment in my play for Gold. Alas, this was not to be in the cards. Delta's flights to Chicago were double and triple the price of other airlines, rendering the few MQMs for status I could earn all but worthless. I was left with only one option: flying American.

So, I did what any sensible man in my position would do: took a big sip of Jim Beam and booked the flight. Hell, I wasn't going to miss the Chicago Seminars!

While I'll do a follow-up on the flight itself, I guess it's only fair that I now tell you why I stopped flying American. Simply, they hit my three strikes rule:

  1. While traveling to meet my grandmother in Aruba, they didn't hold a connecting flight I needed to make. Granted, you can't rely on an airline to hold every connecting flight, no matter how many passengers may be connecting from one delayed inbound flight. However, I took this one personally, as it stranded my grandmother, alone, in a foreign territory, for several hours. What was more offensive was America's inability to assist with a reasonable rebooking, and the gate agent's general lack of care about the situation.
  2. They broke my golf clubs. If there's anything I learned from having my own business, it's that sh*t happens. You make mistakes. You break something. However, what separates the greats from the merely average is your ability to own your errors, and make amends. When they broke my golf clubS (capitalization intentional), not only did they not compensate me in any way, they refused to admit fault, blaming us (my father and I) for poorly packaging them for travel. Guys, they were in the typical golf bag you would buy at Sports Authority, DICK's, or any other physical retailer I could list here, but none of us go to because we all buy our goods on Amazon now.
  3. They lost my luggage, and gave me $25. This one need no further explanation. To the person walking around in my brown corduroy blazer, I hope you wear it well.

All of this was only made worse by American's generally poor customer service, both in-flight and otherwise. I've never been impressed by the friendliness or politeness of the flight crews, who seem to view their work as just that, work, and not creating a memorable moment or experience for passengers. That's why I fly Delta. It may be more money, it may be less convenient, but I'm paying for the experience.