Tim Foolery

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Inca Travel – Introduction

We decided that our big trip this year would be to Peru and Bolivia.  Neither of us had visited these two countries before.  I had never been to South America, unless you count Trinidad, which surprisingly stirs quite the reaction when I ask is it part of North America or South America?

We wanted to visit Machu Picchu and we’d read some pretty great things about the Lima food scene.  MS wanted to visit Bolivia, wanting to experience the world’s highest capital city – La Paz – and visit Lake Titicaca.  La Paz is also home to a restaurant by the creative geniuses who gave us Noma in Copenhagen.

A beautiful day at Machu Picchu

A beautiful day at Machu Picchu

We selected Memorial Day weekend for our visit, so I could parlay the holiday into not using a vacation day.  Since I don’t get much vacation, I always try to throw a vacation around a pre-existing holiday weekend.  Memorial Day weekend is also our wedding anniversary, so I expect this weekend to be one where we are often traveling.

Making my way down the World's Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

Making my way down the World’s Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia

Our trip to Peru and Bolivia was full of some ups and downs.  We had some great food, stayed in some wonderful hotels, saw some amazing sites and we also had pretty severe issues with altitude sickness, food poisoning, awful airline seats and copious amounts of bureaucratic red tape.  I’ll be sharing with you all the highlights of our trip, including:

Have you traveled to Peru or Bolivia?  What surprised you about the visit?  Did you love Machu Picchu?  How many tasting menus did you enjoy?

United’s Personal Device Entertainment – Update

My first experience with United’s Personal Device Entertainment (or bring your own device) was on our way back from Zurich over Thanksgiving – well, technically it was from IAD to ORD, but you get my point.  My first time using this service, I was extremely happy.  The selection of movies, tv shows and other entertainment options was pretty good – as good as you would get in BusinessFirst seats and the playback was top notch, no delays or skipping whatsoever.

Personal Device Entertainment - Photo Courtesy of United.com

Personal Device Entertainment – Photo Courtesy of United.com

Since November, I’ve flown three additional times where the plane had the Personal Device Entertainment (PDE) as an option.  Each time, I’ve noticed it getting worse and worse.  For example, this past weekend, I was coming back from Phoenix and the PDE took quite a while to get connected. None of my three devices (Samsung S6 Edge phone, iPad Mini or Motorola xyboard –yeah, I need a new Android tablet) would connect until after about 20 minutes at cruising altitude, which means we were about 40 minutes into  a 3 hour flight.

Once I finally got connected, the system would stop and reset every 15 or so minutes.  On my other flights when I had an issue, the app was smart enough to know where I was in my film or TV show and give me the option to continue from that spot.  Not so much on this flight.  I had to restart the process, find the show and manually find the spot I was last watching.  This was extremely frustrating, as it happened 5 times – the 5th time, I said screw it and watched a TV show on my tablet.

This was my biggest concern when I first used this service – I was afraid with more people using it, we’d have technical issues.  Now, I have no clue if the issues were driven by extreme use on this flight, but I do know I wasn’t the only one having these issues.  Everyone in my aisle had the same issue at the exact same time.  You could hear the frustrated sighs from my row and rows around me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m here complaining about free in-flight entertainment, on a 3 hour flight, in coach.  Engaging entertainment systems are so low on the priority list when it comes to air travel (safety and security are tops on my list).  I really do love the idea of BYOD entertainment on United and I think it is something I’d use on every flight, if it worked.  My fear is that once United works out the kinks in this system, they’ll end up charging us for the service – at which point I will not use it in the future.

Have you experienced United’s Personal Device Entertainment (BYOD)?  Did it work for you?  Did you experience any hiccups?

UAL 896 HKG-ORD (BusinessFirst)

When I purchased these tickets, I knew I wanted to use my friend’s GPU (Global Premium Upgrades), so I purchased some slightly higher priced coach tickets (technically 50% more expensive than the cheap, non-upgradable tickets).  Our outbound upgrade cleared almost immediately, but hours before our return flight we were still in coach.  It would have been quite a frustrating turn of events to pay extra for an upgradable seat, but not actually get upgraded.  Our upgrade cleared, but not until we got on the high speed train to the airport – cutting it a little close for comfort.

After we left the SilverKris Lounge, we headed off to our departure gate (Gate 65). Once we arrived, I looked around the boarding area and I felt like I was on a flight to Canada: everyone was neatly lined up, boarding pass and passport in hand, not at all like the traditional mayhem that a gate area in an Asian airport usually is.

We boarded through door 2L and turned right for our BusinessFirst Seats.  These weren’t the (relatively) great BusinessFirst Seats we had on the way to Hong Kong, our seats for the return were in the middle section, not only that, but the middle two seats of the middle section.  If I wanted to use the lavatory, I had to either crawl over one or two people.  No carrier can rightfully say they have a quality business class product if they don’t offer aisle access to every seat on the plane.

Flight: United Airlines 896 (BusinessFirst)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200
Seat: 9 D&G
Departure: 11h10 (13h10)
Arrival: 11h45 (11h31)

Luckily EAD and I were able to sit next to each other, and share our misery.  I am pretty sure I’d rather be in this middle middle BusinessFirst seat than an aisle in coach, but as I sat for 15-ish hours wondering if I should wake the guy up next to me, so I could go to the lavatory, I wasn’t sure.

As usual, I started my on-board consumption with some champagne.  This time, I asked for champagne and the stew corrected me, saying they were serving sparkling wine only – guess I can’t win, can I?  I had two glasses of their mediocre sparkling (but hell, a mediocre sparkling is better than no sparkling at all).

Sparkling Wine in a Plastic Glass is better than nothing, I guess.

Sparkling Wine in a Plastic Glass is better than nothing, I guess.

After the door closed, we had a quick taxi to the runway and a fast take-off roll.  We were airborne shortly after the door closed and we were on our way back home.  I was pretty tired at this point – I guess a 4 day trip to Hong Kong can do that to you.  I was looking forward to eating, then curling up and sleeping for a few hours.

The menu was new on this return flight, compared to our original outbound.  I opted for the dried out chicken breast, which, when coupled with the sauce it was served with along with a big drink of wine, it was perfectly acceptable.  I did have a cheese course as well as an ice cream sundae – which was paired with a United Port.

The meal service was completed within about 2.5 hours after the door closed and I was really exhausted at this point.  I decided to stay up and watch a documentary called “Rich Hill”, which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.  This film was really good and depressing.  After the film, I flipped on some Big Bang Theory and closed my eyes.  I then proceeded to sleep off and on for the next 8 hours.  I woke up, after missing the great mid-flight dirty dishwater soup (that I seriously enjoyed on the previous flight).  I killed the rest of the flight by watching some bad TV and debating on doing some work or studying French – neither of which I did.

It still surprises me that the 15 or so hour flights can go by so quickly.  I wouldn’t like doing this every week, but once or twice a year it is perfectly acceptable.  While I do think doing this trip in BusinessFirst is better than coach (here or here), I’ve done both and both are survivable, as long as you come prepared.  Bring lots of things to entertain yourself – movies and TV shows on your laptop/tablet, a book or two, plus hours and hours of music.  You’ll do just fine.

Have you taken this flight to Hong Kong before? How do you survive the two-thirds of a full day in the air?

UAL 895 ORD-HKG (BusinessFirst)

Our flight to Hong Kong left early afternoon, so I was up early to pack and sit in on a couple of conference calls before we left for the airport.  I hate checking a bag, especially for such a short trip and moreso when we have to hit the ground running, so I packed my 21″ roller, leaving plenty of room to bring back my new tux.  We called for an UberX about 10h30 to take us to ORD where we planned on having a Bloody Mary (or two) then we’d stroll over to board the flight.

Late Wednesday morning in January is not a very busy time at ORD – we flew through Pre-Check and headed straight to my favorite United Club in Terminal 1 – near B14.  This is the second newest United Club at ORD and can be quite empty depending on when you are there (the lounge near B4 is always packed when I show up).  We head to the bar and order a couple Bloody Mary’s and talk a bit about what our goals are in Hong Kong — this is a common theme for me – planning the trip while en route to the destination.

United Club Bloodies

United Club Bloodies

Around 12h30 we headed off to the C concourse – arriving at the gate a few minutes before boarding began.  Like my other flights to China and various destinations in Asia, the line formed early, but people began pushing their way to the front.  The line wasn’t moving but other passengers had to get to the head of the queue.  One of my biggest frustrations with China.  We boarded though door 2L and turned left for the mini BusinessFirst cabin. This mini-cabin features 2 rows and 16 seats – while the main BusinessFirst cabin is a right turn from door 2L and contains 3 rows with 24 lay flat BusinessFirst seats.

Flight: United Airlines 895
Aircraft: Boeing 777-200
Seat: 7 A&B
Departure: 13h20 (13h22)
Arrival: 19h20 (19h01)

Shortly after we sat down, the folks across the aisle from us, arrived and started moving all the luggage around in the overhead bins — which frustrated me.  You don’t have to have your bags immediately over your head – and if you MUST, then you should board early.

We were served by a lovely middle aged stew who, even before we were settled in our seat, offered us our choice of beverage – of course, I opted for the sparkling wine.  She called in champagne – not so much, but there was no point in correcting her.  I continued to ask for sparkling wine throughout the flight, and she’d subtly correct me by saying “champagne” when she refilled my glass.  As long as the booze keeps flowing, she can call it whatever she wants.

"Champagne" in a plastic cup en route to Hong Kong.

“Champagne” in a plastic cup en route to Hong Kong.

Our friendly stew begins to pass out the BusinessFirst amenity kits.  I was surprised when I found out they were still using the commemorative tins featuring several United destinations.  I received NRT and EAD picked up DXB.  The amenity kit itself featured the standard components – eye mask, lip balm, hand lotions, socks – all mid-level quality, but a hell of a lot better than you get in coach (which is nothing).

United BusinessFirst Amenity Kit

United BusinessFirst Amenity Kit

We pulled back from the gate and I finished my second class of sparkling wine and our friendly stew picked up our (plastic) glassware.  After a quick taxi to the runway and no queuing, we were airborne. As we pass 10,000 feet, our stew brings us hot nuts and another glass of sparkling wine — this time, in an actual glass.

For lunch, I opted to have the Kung Pao Chicken, which was surprisingly bland and flavorless.  I don’t have high expectations for United food, but this was very disappointing.  EAD had the pork chop. When he asked the stew for guidance on the meal, she was extremely enthusiastic about how “fine” the pork chop was.  She wholeheartedly called it “fine”.  He should have known better, but he ordered it. It looked pretty good, but he needed a power saw to cut the meat.  Eating this pork chop is like eating celery – you burn more calories by eating it (sawing through it) than you gain by consuming it.

Bland Kung Pao Chicken

Bland Kung Pao Chicken

Leathery Pork Chop

Leathery Pork Chop

I decided to continue to gorge myself on mediocre food by having a cheese plate and an ice cream sundae.  I paired these desserts with a couple glasses of port.  There is only one port option on the flight and it is a syrupy sweet port that reminds me a lot of NyQuil — which isn’t all that bad if you have another 13 hours onboard to kill.

Cheese Course and Port

Cheese Course and Port

Lunch was finished by around 15h30 – two hours into the flight.  I then settled in to explore the IFE (In-Flight Entertainment) – which had a decent selection of films and TV shows.  My biggest pet peeve with the TV shows was that they mostly had just a single episode of some shows – I’d a few episodes to keep me entertained before moving off to another program.

I (over) loaded my tablets with TV shows for the flight too — I watched just a few hours of what I brought, then put on my eye mask and turned my seat into a bed.  The seat and bed are pretty comfortable (better than the angled flat seat on Lufthansa, but not as good as First in Thai or Business on Asiana).  My one major complaint about the bed is that it is so narrow. I’m not a big guy (width), but I felt a bit claustrophobic while trying to sleep – it was pretty tough to turn over too.

I slept off and on for a few hours of the flight. About half way through the flight, I was awake and was served a mid-flight snack of Chinese Noodle Soup…which was fantastic.  It looked like (and I called it) Dirty Dishwater Soup – but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I spent another few hours of off and on sleep and TV.  We watched the sunset twice on the flight too.  About 90 minutes from Hong Kong we were served breakfast — which I had a croissant and some cereal with milk.

We landed in Hong Kong about 20 minutes early.  The airport was quite deserted compared to what I was expecting, but that meant we made it through customs and immigration without a single moment delayed by standing in line.  We stopped off in the Arrivals hall to get some cash then hopped in an old red taxi and headed straight into Kowloon to visit our tailor.

It always surprises me how time passes on these super long haul flights.  Granted, being in BusinessFirst is a nice bonus, but I’ve done this same trip to Shanghai in EconomyPlus and it wasn’t all that torturous either.  Sometimes I feel the flight to LA from Chicago is more arduous than a flight to Europe or Asia.  Maybe because the destination excites me more than a domestic trip.  Do you have the same feelings as I do, or are you utterly miserable being on a plane for 16 hours?

Hong Kong Weekend – Trip Introduction

You may not know this, but I’m getting married in May.  It will be a formal affair, so I needed to get a new tuxedo.  I’ve got a Hong Kong tailor who comes to Chicago once a year and I buy a handful of shirts from him each visit.  I was never really happy with the one suit I got from him though – it just didn’t fit right.  I knew I couldn’t do a suit fitting from afar, so I decided that I’d fly to Hong Kong, bring my best man along and get us a couple custom tuxes.  The problem?  From Thanksgiving through mid-February, work is so hectic, I really can’t get away for very long.  There is a sweet spot each January where I can usually escape for 2-3 days.  I’ve used this golden time on the January calendar to visit Shanghai and Stockholm before.

We didn’t have much time, so we decided to leave on Wednesday and return on Sunday.  We are fortunate enough to have a couple direct flights daily between ORD and HKG (UAL and Cathay).  I wasn’t sure if I wanted to cash in American miles for Business or First on Cathay, or United Miles – then my best man (EAD) mentioned that he had four Global Premier Upgrades (GPU) expiring at the end of February.  I did a quick check and found that our upgrade would clear immediately on the outbound, but we’d be wait listed for the return. I decided let’s go ahead and book a cash trip on United and apply these GPUs to move us from economy to BusinessFirst.  I figured that about 17K EQMs would be a nice way to start off the year too.

I did forget a key issue with applying GPUs — they aren’t valid on all fare types.  So the $890/person round trip in economy wouldn’t allow me to upgrade.  The cheapest upgradable fares were $1,500 each.  A total of 32 hours in the air for an additional $610/person (or $20 additional per person per hour — SOLD).   I booked the tickets and our GPU cleared immediately into BusinessFirst.  We were able to snag two seats together (United’s 777’s BusinessFirst cabin is in a 2-4-2 seating configuration) on the two seat side of the plane – unfortunately, our seats were backward facing.  This doesn’t bother me at all and while in the air, I don’t even notice that I’m flying backwards.  EAD has a mild motion sickness issue, so we were a bit concerned that this might be a rough flight for him.

Our trip was 16.5 hours to Hong Kong, 63 hours on the ground and then 15.5 hours back to Chicago.  We had to be efficient, that’s for sure.    Over the coming couple of weeks you’ll be able to read about the following aspects of our trip:

Have you been to Hong Kong?