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Tim Foolery

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UAL 1095 EWR-LIM

We are United guys.  If we can’t fly United we’ll do what we can to fly a Star Alliance carrier.  Luckily United flies to Lima – from Newark and Houston, not Chicago.  We figured the airfare would cost about $1,500 each, but were shocked to find it was going for only $700 per person round trip — on the dates we were looking at, no less.  The flight down to Lima would eat up an entire day – leaving at 09h00 (from ORD) and landing at 21h15, while the return is a redeye, leaving at 22h30 and arriving the following day at 07h30 (arriving in Newark, not Chicago).  I wasn’t too keen on flying coach all night so I decided to check the cost of going Business.  Low and behold – the actual cost of Business was around the price I originally expected to fly coach.  I decided to pull the trigger and fly in United’s BusinessFirst for this trip.  Not only would I have a better opportunity for sleep on the return redeye, I’d get double elite qualifying miles for this trip.

Our flight out of Chicago to Newark left at 09h05 on Saturday morning.  The news was full of warnings of horrific TSA delays for a couple weeks leading up to this trip.  Leaving early Saturday morning in May didn’t cause me much concern regarding either vehicle or people traffic.  I was right – no traffic en route to O’Hare and once there, we had checked our bags and made it through Pre-Check within about 20 minutes and made it to the newly opened United Club near gate B14 in Terminal One.

The flight to Newark was completely uneventful.  I like that United is now serving sparkling wine onboard, but their selection is utter turpentine — but I still drink it.  In general I’m not a breakfast guy and really not an airplane breakfast guy.  United has upped their food game and the French Toast they served was surprisingly tasty – and at the advice of the Stew I started drinking mimosas.  The mediocre OJ really cut the awful sparkling wine and made it a quite enjoyable cocktail.  Who knew?

French Toast with Fruit - United Domestic First to Newark

French Toast with Fruit – United Domestic First to Newark

We had a couple hour layover in Newark and spent a little bit of time in the United Club there as well, then headed off to board our Boeing 757-200 to Lima.

Flight: United Airlines 1095 (BusinessFirst)
Aircraft: Boeing 757-200
Seat: 3F
Departure: 14h15 (14h15)
Arrival: 21h10 (21h05)

The plane we were on was a bit beat up.  My IFE screen seemed to have a pretty big dent in it — like someone smashed their head into it (accidentally?) – it worked pretty well, but the touch screen was a little finicky.

Once we were seated the Stew, who was quite sassy — in a very good way, mind you — served us some more of that awful sparkling wine.  I know, if it is so awful, why do I keep drinking it?  I don’t have an answer for you, honestly.  I like the idea of bubbles onboard and the other wines were just marginally better.  I figured after a couple glasses my taste buds would be ruined and I could enjoy the alcohol and bubbles.  Menus and amenity kits were distributed.  We were given the standard BusinessFirst amenity kit with XXXX products.  I was hoping we’d get the new Rio Olympics kit, but those weren’t being rolled out until June 1.

I’ve mentioned it before, but United has indeed upped their food game and I find that the items served in BusinessFirst are actually quite edible.  Here are the options from our flight down to Lima.

United BusinessFirst Menu to Lima

United BusinessFirst Menu to Lima

I opted for the pasta.  I’ve had both the chicken and the short rib before and both were pretty good.  For some reason I didn’t snap pictures of any of the food on this flight – I’m not sure what I was thinking, perhaps I was too engrossed in a classic James Bond film I was watching.  I do love watching Bond while in the air.

Our flight was quick, quiet and unlike almost every other flight I’ve had with a lie flat seat, the cabin temperature wasn’t sweltering, so I was able to take a little cat nap while en route.

We landed in Lima just a few minutes later than scheduled.  We made it through immigration and customs to baggage claims pretty quickly, where we waited for about 20 minutes for our luggage to arrive.  Lima airport personnel were at each baggage claim area checking your luggage claim checks to ensure you picked up the proper bag.  In all my travels, this has happened only one other time for me – at Heathrow in January 2000.  It’s a nice thought that someone is looking out for you, but at this point, I just wanted to run my bags through the last x-ray machine and officially be in Peru.

We were greeted by dozens of taxi drivers offering to take us anywhere we wanted.  It was a little overwhelming at first.  We went to a stand in the airport, told them where we were going and asked for a price quote.  To the Westin, they said it would cost 90.  We asked 90 what – dollars or soles…and their response was “Either one, which ever you prefer”.  So we could pay in either currency and according to the taxi starter, we could pay $90USD or 90 soles – the equivalent of $30USD if we paid in local currency.  We went off to find another ride, which was quick and ended up costing and equivalent of $30USD.

Traffic was quite intense from the Airport to the San Isidro neighborhood – taking us nearly an hour to make the journey.  Next up: Our experience at the Westin Lima Convention Center – where we spent our first night and our last two nights of the trip.

Have you been to Lima? What airline did you fly?  Would you have paid for the BusinessFirst airfare or would have saved the money and flown in coach?  What do you end up drinking when you fly United — do you ever get use to that awful sparkling wine?

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UAL 937 ZRH-IAD / UAL 751 IAD-ORD

Unfortunately, United doesn’t fly between Zurich and Chicago – so we had to stop over at IAD.  I haven’t had a domestic layover in years!  I’m use to connecting (if necessary) in Europe then landing at ORD and heading straight home.  It is good to try new things, right?

We arrived at the airport earlier than expected — traffic in Zurich was non-existent on a Saturday morning. Even after forgetting to fill up the rental car, leaving the airport to find a petrol station and backtracking to the airport we still arrived with about 90 minutes to spare.  We quickly checked-in (and checked our bags, because they were full of shoes, cheese curlers, books and chocolates).  I had the nicest and most efficient contract worker checking me in.  He was funny and like me, he really doesn’t like obese, entitled Americans.  There was this woman, who ended up being on our flight, checking in next to me. She wasn’t going to pay for her checked extra and over-sized  bags, she wanted an upgrade the first class and she demanded a chair (during check-in) because she just couldn’t stand any more.  All of these things are unreasonable.  1) Everyone knows you pay for luggage 2) Why would you get a double upgrade to First? 3) A chair? C’mon!

She had enough, so she sat down on the luggage belt.  To be fair, I didn’t hear the conversation, but the funny contact employee told me all about it.  But I know she did plop down shortly after I left.

Just couldn't take all the standing during check-in at ZRH.

Just couldn’t take all the standing during check-in at ZRH.

We made it through security and immigration without a delay or even a question. We debated on buying a fancy Swiss watch or some more chocolates, but decided it was best just to go to the lounge and have a drink.  We spent about 50 minutes in the Swiss Lounge, drinking prosecco (no champagne when we were there) and eating pastries.  The trip from the lounge to the gate was pretty quick and we soon boarded our flight to IAD.

Flight: United Airlines 937 / 751
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300 / Airbus A320
Seat: 20 A&B / 21 C&D
Departure: 11h45 (11h44)
Arrival: 18h05 (17h55)

This was a pretty standard set of flights, so I will offer a bit of guidance for folks who are flying coach on United to/from Europe

1) Meals are free on these flights, but as expected they are pretty mediocre. I always request the vegetarian option, which is usually a chickpea/lentil curry and is quite tasty.  If I ordered it in a restaurant, I’d never return to that restaurant, but or a “free” meal in the air on United, it is definitely the best option, I think.  They don’t bring too many of these meals on board, so unless you are sitting very close to the front, you won’t be getting this option.

2) Always bring your own water, these are long flights and if you don’t drink enough water you’ll be dehydrated by the time you land.  This can be tricky though, depending on the airport, you may get searched again at boarding and your water confiscated (even if purchased inside security).  I always take the risk – worst case scenario, I’m out a few bucks on water.  Dehydration is a key cause of jet lag.

3) Get up and walk during the flight.  If you are young and healthy/fit you are less likely to have blood clot issues (deep vein thrombosis), but you shouldn’t sit in a pressurized cabin for 8+ hours without taking a bit of a walk.  If you drink enough water, the getting up to walk will take care of itself.

We had a 90 minute layover at Dulles (IAD) which we thought would allow us ample time to get through customs and immigration, grab and re-check our luggage and even grab a glass of wine before boarding our flight to Chicago.  No, not so much. Even with Global Entry we had a long wait at Border Patrol and Baggage Claim.  By the time we got to our domestic gate, they were already boarding Group 3 (and we are Group 2) — so we walked straight onto the plane.  Cutting it a little close for my taste, that’s or sure.

The other thing of note, was that this domestic flight was on a newly retrofitted A320 with the Personal Device Entertainment System.  This is United’s new BYOD (bring your own device) in flight entertainment system.  At the time it was only available for Apple devices, so I used my iPad mini and was very pleasantly surprised.  The selection was good (as good as you’d get from an International United BusinessFirst seat) and the speed was perfect – I noticed no slowdown during videos at all.

All in all the trip home was easy and since we returned on a Saturday we had an extra day to relax at home and since it was the end of Thanksgiving weekend and we had a domestic connection, we missed the mayhem that travel day would have inevitably brought.

Our week in France and Switzerland came to a close and we returned to our real world jobs.  So sad to return, but feel very fortunate that we were able to have this experience.  What did you do for Thanksgiving?

UA 3471/68 ORD-EWR-ARN (Economy Plus)

One of the things I love about Chicago is that I can get almost anywhere in the world in just two flights.  Most of my travels allow me to get anywhere without connecting at all.  The nonstop option doesn’t really work when I’m trying to get to South Africa or Vietnam, but to Europe it works great.  That is unless of course, you are going to Stockholm (ARN) from Chicago (ORD) – to stay with United the whole way you need to stop in Newark (EWR), or on SAS a stop in Copenhagen is required, or on Lufthansa you need to stop either in Munich of Frankfurt.  The cheapest option for me on the dates I needed to travel was on United.

When I’m required to have a stop, I prefer to have that stop as close to my destination as possible. Get me to Europe and I’ll connect there. That way if there is mechanical issues or other delays, at least I am there and there are more options to my destination.  I don’t want to have a connection in the US and my gateway City (the airport I connect in immediately before I leave the US) have only a single flight a day to my destination.  That’s how my Stockholm flight was set. There were at least half a dozen flights between ORD and EWR on departure day, but only one to ARN.  If my ORD-EWR flight was delayed, I could be stuck in Newark all night after missing the one daily flight to Stockholm.

The week of my departure Chicago had horrendous weather.  I left on a Thursday morning, but the week started out with most offices closing because of “life threatening wind chill” of -42C (or -45F).  It snowed. It was windy. It was miserable.  The morning of my departure it started to snow.  I was afraid that my Regional Jet flight might get scrapped and only the bigger (or as I call them “real planes” would make the hub-hub flights).  I debated on putting myself on the earlier flight just to get to EWR (where the weather was perfect, by the way), but I decided to risk it on my original itinerary – and if it didn’t work, I’d just come back home.  I’m glad I didn’t put myself on a different flight, because my flight was the only one that morning that left on time.  I was actually in Newark before the flight that was scheduled to leave an hour before mine left.  The travel gods were smiling.

Carrier: United Airlines (ORD-EWR-ARN)
Flight: UA 3471 / 68
Seat: 10A / 21C
Departure: January 9, 2014 – 11h55
Arrival: January 10, 2014 – 07h35
Travel Time: 12 hours 35 minutes
Flight Miles: 4,649

I won’t waste anyone’s time with the details on the Regional Jet service between ORD and EWR.  It was a small plane, it was full, service was what you’d expect on a Regional Jet servicing United Hubs. Once we landed I had about 2 hours in Newark, so of course, I decided to hit the lounge.  It was extremely full and since it was my first time in Newark (period), I didn’t know my way around and I didn’t know which lounge would be best.  I picked one right near my departing gate and wandered aimlessly around the lounge, feebly attempting to find a place to drop anchor and work for a few minutes and enjoy cheap lounge booze.

The flight was oversold, so I made sure I was at the gate ready to board when my group was called: Not because I would be denied boarding (didn’t have that much booze and I am confident a Mileage Plus Gold member wouldn’t get forcibly bumped if other options were available), but I wanted to make sure my roller board would be with me. Gate checking for such a short trip always concerns me.

While I don’t necessarily like flying B757s transatlantic (TATL), at least the plane that would carry me to Stockholm had updated interiors including a semi-modern (for United standards) In-Flight-Entertainment System – with both video and audio on demand.  Since it was a TATL, we were served a meal, which I chose the pasta (a gummy flavorless mistake).  The flight attendant consistently working my seat was very nice and very attentive, but she did struggle a bit walking down the aisle (her hips > the aisle width).

I watched the new James Bond film, but as with the other 4 times I’ve watched it on a plane, I am asleep before the film has crossed the 25 minute mark (I blame airplanes, not Daniel Craig).  The woman sitting next to me was Swedish. She was traveling with her husband and 3 daughters (yes, three 17-21 year old blond, tall, thin, Swedish daughters — it did nothing for me, but I was thinking of all my friends who would have been in heaven).  She (the mom) was very nice, but one of those people who wanted to spend the flight chit-chatting.  I told her my plans for seeing Stockholm and disconnecting for a bit.  She thought it a better idea that I go to her town with her family and explore semi-rural Sweden.  It was a lovely thought, but I’ve seen Hostel and I’m not following a beautiful group of people to an unknown land.

We landed early into Stockholm and customs was amazingly fast and efficient.  The border patrol officer thought my quick trip was a great idea and even asked what I planned on doing (perhaps that was part of his profiling, but he did give me some recommendations for food and booze, which I took him up on).

Despite the Chicago weather and the quick layover in Newark, the flight over was perfectly fine. I don’t like the idea of flying a narrow-bodied plane across the Atlantic, but it fit my needs (and I got MY seat — aisle seat in the second row of over-wing exits).  I’d probably take this flight again, mostly because the other options (in coach) have much more limited leg room and the idea of sitting for 8 hours (TATL) with only 30″-31″ of pitch just makes my skin crawl.

Where do you prefer to have your layover – closer to home or closer to your destination?  Do you mind single-aisle, narrow-bodied planes for trips across the pond or do you prefer a wide-bodied jet?  If you had to fly to Stockholm from Chicago, how would you go?

Global Entry – What is it? How do I get it?

On a recent blog post, I mentioned Global Entry and I received a question from a reader asking about the program.  This is a great question.

What is Global Entry?

Global Entry is a program managed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which allows you to bypass the traditional Customs and Border Patrol queues and use kiosks when returning to the U.S. from foreign travel.  Instead of completing that skinny blue form you answer the same questions on a self-serve terminal upon arrival.  It’s just like using the self check-in kiosks when you arrive at the airport.

Who is eligible?

When the program started only U.S. citizens were eligible, but that has since changed.  U.S., Dutch, South Korean and Mexican citizens, as well as lawful permanent U.S. residents are eligible to apply.   Canadians can obtain the same benefits through their NEXUS program.  Just because you are eligible of course doesn’t mean you’ll actually be approved to this program.

Application/Approval Process

The application process starts online (follow this link to be directed to the official application page). You’ll be required to complete several pages of personal information (name, address, etc) as well as other non-traditional questions – including listing the countries you’ve visited previously.  This last part can be difficult for some of us – you need to list the countries and the dates of your visits.  There is a $100 non-refundable application fee – but some credit cards (AmEx Platinum) and some Airlines (for top tier frequent flyers – United’s 1K) will reimburse you this fee.

Your application will then be reviewed and I’ve heard this application process taking just a couple of days to several weeks, depending on the number of other applications in the queue. My application took less than a week – I applied in January of 2013.  Once approved you’ll be allowed to set up a personal interview at a Customs and Border Patrol Office.  Most of these are located in airports, although there are more and more City offices. I visited a City location.  One thing to note though – you don’t have to schedule your interview at your local office. If you are transiting another airport, you can schedule an interview there. Be sure to plan ahead though – these offices can be land side and often times found in an international terminal – so if you are on a domestic connection you will need a lot of time to get to the office, go through the interview and  get back through security and to your connecting gate.

What does the interview consist of?  It’s pretty straight forward. My guy asked me about my past and my future travel plans.  I was 100% honest with these guys – and recommend you be the same.  A friend told me a tale of his interview where a fellow applicant was caught in a lie.  The CBP Officer asked the other applicant if he had ever been arrested and the applicant said “No” to which the CBP Officer said “Are you sure? Not even for driving while under the influence in 1994 in Springfield”.  I don’t know if this guy was accepted or not. I wonder if he just FORGOT he was arrested or if he thought it was so long ago it didn’t matter.  My suggestion – be completely honest though the entire process.

The final step is for the CBP Officer to snap your picture, register your passport and show you how to use the actual system. All in all, I was in the CBP office less than 30 minutes.

Is Global Entry Worth It?

This question is very personal.  For me, it absolutely is. I travel internationally 4-5 times a year and often I arrive at ORD during the afternoon rush period where the lines can be long – the longest I’ve ever waited at ORD for CBP was 1h15.   With Global Entry, I’ve been able to get from the plane to a taxi in less than 15 minutes – so it is totally worth it for me.  I say if you have a credit card or a frequent travel program that reimburses you the fee, go for it.

Do you have Global Entry? How long did the total process take you (from application to being an active user)? Did you pay the fee or did a credit card or an airline pay on your behalf?