Wednesday, May 16, 2012

[Travel] Day 6: sleep, perchance to dream?

My original plan was to sleep as late as possible and catch the 7 AM shuttle. My original plan was stupid because, after all, who really wants to maximize sleep before a 51-hour journey across the globe? Not me, that's for damn sure.

So up I was at 4:30 because I hate my body almost as much as I hate LA traffic. I called the front desk and switched to the 6 AM shuttle. Technically they started serving the complimentary breakfast right at 6 but they let me know it really started at 5:30. Color me impressed. As is so often the case in the segment of the market competing for family and budget travel, Country Inn and Suites delivered a far superior product to what a regular person was likely to get at a pricier Hilton or Sheraton.

Yes those are crispix on a plate - they had no bowls. I'm not proud of it, okay.
The shuttle made quick work of the trip and unlike last night we went in blissful silence. I should have known that things were going too smoothly for that to last. I realized as I pulled up to O'Hare that while I have transited through the place plenty of times, I've never originated there. And after this trip I never will again, either.

I wasn't sure whether to get into the economy or first class international check-in line since technically my first flight was a United economy flight on a one-cabin plane. I am horribly uncomfortable with most of this first class bit at the best of times so I stood in the economy line. It took about ten minutes to get to a kiosk. The kiosk, it did not like me so much. After getting several overrides from staff it managed to let me check my bags through to Zurich. That's a start, but really I wanted to check them all the way to Hong Kong so I didn't have to deal with them during my 16-hour layover.

For that they sent me to see a special agent. Worst. Decision. Ever. I stood in line for 45 minutes and we did not move, not even once. The four people being helped must have had some of the most complex cases imaginable. Either that or United just sucks. Eventually I said screw it and I went and stood in the first class line. If 96% of the miles being flown are in first, I'm gonna justify the hell out of that decision.

After another ten minutes I finally got to speak with someone and she was nice enough to get my bags checked to HK. Will I ever see them again? Who knows?

I cleared security quickly and the agent working the United Lounge desk was nice enough to let me in even though neither of us could figure out if my first class ticket later in the day on a non-United Star Alliance carrier merited it. I had a Sprite Zero and enjoyed a comfortable chair for about 15 minutes then headed to the gates.

Gratuitous muffins!

United Lounge in Chicago

Painful admission time - I am gate lice. I can't help myself. There's some compelling urge to stand there waiting for them to call my zone. In this particular case it was even worse than that as the jet was tiny and I had legitimate concerns about whether my backpack would fit anywhere on the plane. Gate checking something with a laptop in it isn't really an option. So in one of my lower moments I boarded well before my zone was called and just tried to make it look like I knew what I was doing. It turned out to be a crucial decision as I got one of the only overhead bin spots left and I really don't know what would have happened otherwise. The last time I was in a similar situation they made me wedge it under the seat, thereby breaking my laptop.

The flight to Montreal was quick and painless, with a very efficient drink service thrown in to boot. I could not say the same about disembarking, as I had absolutely no clue where to go to get to my connecting flight. The signage was awful and, I assume due to budget cuts, most positions were unstaffed. I finally managed to stumble my way into customs/immigration and saw a sign for international connections. 

You all let me know when you are tired of seeing shots of my crotch

Diet something or other
The pathway ended at an alarmed door and no one there to open it. I stood there for about three minutes trying to decide the right course of action when an extremely apologetic Canadian customs official came over. Turns out no one had told her there was an international passenger transiting before 1:30 PM so she was off staffing a different position. One very pleasant interaction later and I was on my way.

My plan for the four hours was to go sit in Air Canada's Maple Leaf Lounge and get some work done. I arrived at the Lounge to find out that it didn't open for another three hours. Huh. Taking it in stride, I decided to find a comfortable place to sit and use the free wireless. I had a rather tasty prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich that I doubt I would have seen for sale in a US airport.

It came complete with an awkward ordering experience. I have an absolute horrible ear for languages and accents and I'm probably going deaf to boot. The one part of international travel that I find scary is living in a world in which I cannot effectively communicate. So I've tried to learn a few words in the various places I'll be traveling to. Today's lesson is that if you use a few of them to start a conversation then the other person reasonably expects that you can continue the conversation in said language. I got about two lines into my French Canadian experience when I had to bail and switch to English. Who's a stereotypical American? This guy!
I'm being healthy...ish
As I was walking past the TD Bank Lounge Sponsored by TD Bank and Have We Mentioned TD Bank, it occurred to me that one of the AmEx Platinum benefits that I've never taken advantage of is a membership in Priority Pass. I have the Priority Pass card but I've yet to encounter a lounge that it gained me entry to. Until now. Hooray for American Express (yes I'm a corporate shill; I've accepted that).

The TD Lounge was nice enough, with a decent selection of booze and, more importantly for my purposes, diet soda. You are totally surprised, ya? Priority Pass got me three hours worth of admittance but I decided to head over to the Maple Leaf Lounge a little early just to see what it was like. The place had only been open for ten minutes and already I could not find a seat. Let's just say it was a quick trip to the lounge and it involved a small bite to eat while overlooking the tarmac.
Who sponsors this lounge again? Bank of America? Chase? God, I wish I could remember

Completely empty

Still empty

It's almost like there were no flights leaving this terminal for the next four hours or something

Loved this plane as it's got both Air Canada (my booking airline) and Star Alliance, who are flying me everywhere

Baileys. Should have just stuck with Diet Stuff
At that point it was just about time to board the flight. Much like the moment before I first went into Disneyland, I had been privately contemplating whether I was an idiot for spending 120,000 miles on a first class ticket when I could have likely saved quite a few and done it in coach (and used the rest of those miles for an extra coach trip to Europe). It took about fifteen minutes on board to realize that it was an excellent decision.

There are so many trip reports out there about international first class experiences and most of them do a better job than I am likely to do in explaining what comes with the whole package. But what I'd like to stress because I don't see it out there as much is the feeling of experiencing things that are just so far outside the norm of my life.

I was really hoping for a window seat but, with all of them already assigned (they were assigned at least two months ago when I called to try and change), I had to make do with an aisle seat in row 1. By this point my backpack was just short of gargantuan so I decided to take a flier on trying to store it overhead and I shoved about half of it under the ottoman. If it hadn't been first class I'm sure they wouldn't have let it go, but as it was they said it was okay.
Isn't she lovely?

First class? Awww heck yeah!

My seat, in pre-Voltron seat configuration

Very nice screen. Don't think I used it once
Shortly after I arrived they offered me a pre-departure beverage. The flight attendant suggested champagne and, while I am not much of a drinker, I am not going to say no to free champagne. The entire "being in first class" experience had left me feeling more awkward than possibly any time since I asked a girl to the dance in seventh grade. I kept thinking "I don't belong here and I'm sure I'm doing something wrong". Nothing makes that feeling go away faster than a glass of champagne, right? Right.

Two different flight attendants worked first class on this flight. The one who worked my side of the cabin, and whose name I cannot for the life of me remember, really made the flight. She was not as effusively cheerful as some of the others I have read about in trip reports, but I think she could tell I felt uncomfortable and she did her best to encourage me to enjoy what they had on offer.

After settling in I was offered a set of pajamas. Thanks to reading several of Ben's trip reports I knew enough to go get changed before take-off. They also distributed the dinner menus and took our orders. None of the main courses looked especially tempting so I asked if I could instead have the first three appetizers. The flight attendant was glad to oblige.
Mmmm, some sort of alcohol that someone handed me

Everyone's favorite photo angle - also a footrest and the BACKPACK OF DOOM


In Jermaine's voice from Flight of the Conchords: "Ladies?"

Delightfully simple seat instructions

Less simple IFE controls

Amuse bouche

I had to laugh when looking over the wine list - wouldn't you know it but they had the same vineyard's ice wine as the kind I paid a ridiculous amount for at Napa Rose. Well, I guess I knew what I was going to be drinking. Sadly (predictably?) they had run out on the inbound flight and so they restocked in Montreal with a different brand. Couldn't quite catch the name but it was delicious anyway! After two glasses I decided to call it quits, both because I am a lightweight and had no desire to make an international ass of myself, and because there's no point in dehydrating myself even more on a long flight. The flight attendant to her credit practically begged me to have another glass, possibly sensing that deep down I wanted to. But instead I had a few diet cokes and called it a night.

Below are pictures of dinner. On the whole it was quite tasty - not at the level of a world-class restaurant, but still delicious. The Balik salmon definitely impressed me the most, though the plate of dried meats and assorted pickled things reminded me of why I am so excited to visit Germany at the end of the trip.
I'd like your finest Diet Coke please - I believe the '65 was a wonderful vintage

Wonderful table setting - plus some ice wine

Looked better than it tasted

Tasted better than it looked


Even more delicious!


Essence of mango (the fruit, not the SNL character...eww)
I decided to try and get some sleep, so the flight attendant was nice enough to convert my seat to a lie-flat bed. I don't sleep on airplanes, and tonight proved to be no exception, but at least I couldn't blame the bed/seat, which was lengthy enough for my 6'1 frame and quite comfortable. More difficult to handle were the extreme temperatures. It must have been around 80 in the cabin. It was so hot that at one point I accidentally knocked a glass of ice water onto myself whilst trying to sleep and I thought "hmm, I wonder if I can do that again without anyone noticing because that felt fantastic". After about two hours of laying there thinking deep thoughts Jack Handy style, I gave up on sleep.

I spent the rest of the flight watching Big Bang Theory and rereading Pratchett's The Colour of Magic (Twoflower is a good role model for me on this trip) and rereading Sherlock Holmes stories. This is probably my third pass through the Holmes collection which makes me feel especially smart when I solve the mysteries before Holmes does ;)
Go Go Gadget Chairbed
About an hour out I asked the flight attendant for my clothes so I could change back into them. She opened the rack of clothes and told me to take whosever I thought nicest. Have I mentioned how much I liked her? She then offered me breakfast which, having not actually slept since dinner, I gratefully accepted. I had a bowl of delicious fruit, a danish and a diet coke (naturally). She also asked if I wanted bacon. I love bacon. I have a shirt that a friend got me that has the chemical elements for Barium, Cobalt and Nitrogen on it (spells BaCoN). Whatever she served was definitely not bacon. She even apologized while serving it saying "the container said bacon - hopefully it's still good". It wasn't, but I was full enough without it.
I believe my breakfast requires more sugar - can that be arranged?

grumble grumble not bacon what the hell is this crap grumble grumble

We landed on time and after a quick taxi the seven of us (out of eight possible) in first deplaned and were on our way.


  1. Sounds like a nice flight. I love Swiss, they have one of the best First Class cabins on StarAlliance.

    I usually sleep like a baby when I have a bed on a plane, perhaps it's the 4-5 glasses of Champagne, Red Wine and Port ;-) Oh and 5 lbs of food.

    Enjoy the First Class lounge in Zurich! It will make up for the MLL and TD Lounges in YUL. And you should get a Limo ride.

  2. I strongly debated just going all-in on the icewine until I fell asleep (or, alternately, taking an ambien) but I figured that being really sleepy and still not falling asleep would be even worse.

    Definitely enjoyed Swiss - though I suspect it may have spoiled me as my first time in international first class!