Friday, July 13, 2018

5 Years old and growing!



Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine this blog taking off like it did, or having the staying power and relevance it does.

When I started this blog back in 2013, it was with the intention of making this a springboard for my opinions in Travel, the Airline Industry, and Luxury.  I dropped the Luxury bit real quick and focused on everything travel related.  It was a very slow start, the first posts were averaging a total of about 20-50 reads.  Pitiful really, but hey, you have to learn to crawl before you can learn to walk.  

When I shut down my first agency, Vintage Travel, and started working for Egencia (I refuse to say I worked for the third party contractor, I represented Egencia, not them, to the folks on the phone), my posts started gaining traction, but still, maximum reads were in the 250-300 range.  At the time I was thrilled, as I thought I was finally on the uptick.  More and more entries were made, and by the time I left Egencia to start my second, and final at home travel agency, the Gold Standard Travel Co., I was drawing around 500 reads per post.  Having never been at that level, I was thrilled.  Then I met author, thespian, and all around great guy Thorman Hulse, and he helped me hone my writing craft.  I owe a HUGE amount of gratitude to Thorman, without him, I more than likely would've given the writing game up for dead, especially since i was getting no support from my wife at the time.  So Thorman, if you get a chance to read this, thank you, dear sir, from the very bottom of my heart.  I owe you and Kathy immensely for the friendship and support.

The jump happened when I was caught up in the self-made implosion of the fly-by-night scam airline SkyGreece.  I was working for a shady faux travel agency in Salt Lake City and I had been watching with growing alarm that planefuls of travelers were stranded in Athens, Greece, Budapest, and Toronto, due to the grounding of this airline's sole aircraft.  I managed to help get a few travelers back across the Atlantic home, and followed up and got caught up in the unfolding drama of this scam.  My following write up of the drama  (The Perils of Pride)  caused a windfall of reads, and then kept bringing them in, averaging about 1100 to 1200 reads per post.  That post, along with a writeup I did on the actual downfall of the first airline I ever worked at, TWA (Setting the Record Straight), boosted my daily readership higher.

It wasn't too much longer after that, and after a bitter and bloody divorce, I was invited to become an Agent with the American Automobile Association (AAA).  It was no secret I had wanted to be an agent for them since I first became an agent back in 2009.  From what I know, I was the 3rd or 4th Agent in Utah hired by AAA to help them open up their Travel operation in their huge new Member Service Center in Clearfield, Utah.  Thanks to several trips and multiple postings every quarter, and support from quite a few folks in AAA's Travel Dept, my postings have reached more people and further away than I ever imagined, so a HUGE shout out goes to my incredible employer, and my amazing and fabulous clients.  Thank you, one and all, for making this blog reach an average of 25,000 reads per post!!  Another huge shout out to 2 people in my own office, Rolene and Angela, for pushing me when needed, and pulling the reins in as well, you have shaped me as an agent and I look up to you too and consider you both mentors in every sense of the word, and hopefully that has come through in my posts since being hired in 2016.

Well, that was the first 5 years, let's spin the globe and see where the next 5 will take the Jetsetting Globetrotter.  Thank you, one and all! 



Shortly before the beginning of FL310, on top of the Acropolis with my Dad.





5 years of refinement as a Travel Agent, photo credit AAA.


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Flying Blue: Business Class on KLM's Boeing 747-400


How often can a guy get lucky?  I seriously thought my first and only time to get on the fabled Boeing 747-400 was last September with Delta.  I was fortunate enough to snag the last seat on the final domestic 747 flight, thinking I had flown on my only flight on the Queen.

You should've gone to La$ Vega$ and put money on me.

Originally, this trip to Greece didn't even have me on the 747.  At all.  My routing was Salt Lake City to Los Angeles, overnight there, then the next morning do Los Angeles - Seattle - Paris - Athens, with the return 3 weeks later doing Athens - Amsterdam - Detroit - Los Angeles, overnighting there again, AFTER a segment on Delta's new long haul flagship, the Airbus A350-900.  Well, by the time the end of March had rolled by, my ticket for this trip had been subject to not 1, but 5, that's right, count them, 5 schedule changes.  Each change getting worse and worse and my arrival time into Athens going well past midnight.  Ugh.  So I got on the horn with Delta and told them, I don't want another schedule change, and while I'm at it, get me off as much Delta metal as you can, just for putting me through those changes before.  The poor agent was horrified, but we ended up with a decent schedule.  Leaving from Los Angeles, I was to go nonstop to Amsterdam then onwards to Athens, all on KLM, and returning the same way.  Beautiful.  The agent made the final change and confirmed the flights.  Turns out, the Los Angeles segments were on the Queen herself, the Boeing 747-400.  I was happier than Hugh Hefner in a Strip Club.

So the time for my trip FINALLY came.  Off I went on an overcast morning from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles on the hot rod Canadair Regional Jet 700 (or CR7 to us avgeeks).  As I was on American Eagle (American Airlines' regional operation), we arrived at the double wide trailer sized commuter terminal smack in the middle of the sprawling complex LAX is.  No biggie.  Until you realized how much luggage I had with me...

Fast forward 24 hours.

Having been dropped off at the iconic and much-filmed Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) (you can see it in Die Hard 2, Die Hard, Commando, etc. etc.), with my mountain of luggage, I shagged a luggage trolley and made my way to the KLM check-in counter upstairs.

"My apologies, Mr. Andritsakis, but it seems we have given your Economy Comfort seat away.  We have a few seats at the very back of the plane, or one last seat open in Business Class on the Upper Deck.   Which would you prefer?"   advised the harried agent after he realized the system goofed.  I told him I wouldn't mind the Upper Deck at all.  "Very well, sir, also, since you'll be in Business Class, I'll check all your bags for you all the way to Athens, and you also have access to the OneWorld lounge just inside security until departure."  Bonus. now I don't have to pay the extra baggage charge for my 3rd suitcase, nor do I have the pay the excess weight charges, either. This trip was starting off just right.


Why would KLM have use of the OneWorld Lounge when they are a full-fledged member of SkyTeam you ask?  Well, it's simple.  The TBIT only has a few lounges, and Korean Air has one, but it's small, noisy, and most of the time cramped.  So, KLM, and the other airlines not in OneWorld, sensing they don't want to lose their premium cabin passengers at such an important gateway as LAX, struck up agreements with the airlines that have the lounges, and sure enough, at that time of the day, this lounge was full of KLM, Aeroflot, and other SkyTeam passengers.

After a great breakfast and preflight mimosa in the club, I headed down to the gate, insomuch as for me to get my inner avgeek satisfied by watching planes until boarding.  I got a few good shots with my phone, and before I knew it, it was time to board.  The gate staff had us line up behind several boarding group signs, and Lord have mercy on your soul if you tried to board before your group, as I saw while waiting behind the Group 1 sign.


My ride for the day was KLM's Boeing 747-400 PH-BFL, named the "City of Lima".  Delivered to KLM from Boeing on May 12, 1991, this Queen is the 888th 747 off the line.  Stepping inside, you really can't tell, though.  KLM, as European as it is, keeps their fleet up to snuff.  OK, so the Business Class isn't a suite, nor is it single seat with aisle access AND a window, but, that being said, my seat was spacious and amazing to my 6'1", 400 lb frame.  I was far more comfortable in this seat than I was in Delta's 747-400 DeltaOne seat several months earlier.  No offense to Delta, but GOD those seats, once I was in the lie-flat mode, felt like a narrow coffin.  But I digress.

So on board I went, hang a right after greeting the gorgeous Dutch Flight Attendant, passing the oddly laid out Economy Comfort section (including my long since re-assigned seat 16A), and on up the staircase to the Upper Deck.  down the aisle I go and get myself situated in 71K (shoes off, and wearing my KLM issued socks from the quaint amenity kit), the very first window seat on the starboard side.

Before we knew it, we were getting the pushback out into the alleyway behind the TBIT, and we were on our way.  Being early afternoon, there were a few Asian, domestic, and European flights already queueing up for departure on LAX's North runways.  One by one they departed, and soon enough it was KLM 602's turn, and we were hurled aloft by the power of those 4 GE engines, over Playa Del Ray Beach and the Pacific Ocean before a leisurely left turn and high angle climb Eastward towards Europe.

The dinner service promptly began once we had leveled off somewhere between LA and Las Vegas.  The lovely Flight Attendant brought my seatmate and I our pre-meal warmed nuts and beverage service, where I decided to try KLM's signature drink, the "Flying Dutchman".  This amazing concoction was developed for KLM by legendary Dutch distillery Bols, who blend their amazing blackberry schnapps with gin and a splash of lemon juice and simple sugar.  An amazing cocktail to start the journey off right.

The appetizer course came and I chose the cauliflower soup, thinking it was cold.  Well, it wasn't and hit the spot with an amazing taste that left me asking for more later on in the flight (my daughter Susie would've emptied the plane of it had she been with me!).  The main course was a selection between cheese fragottini with grated Swiss Chard over it, chicken teriyaki with rice, or a beef stew over ratatouille.  I picked the fragottini, and was not disappointed.  For inflight dining, and a pasta dish no less, it was not over cooked and slightly al dente, which is the way I like it, with plenty of cheese to satisfy the heaviest of turophiles.  Out of the several choices I had for dessert, I picked the unlisted pecan pie tart that the flight attendant recommended.  Not quite to Deep South standards, but it was delicious nonetheless.  Once the dinner service was over, I laid out my seat to the full flat position, polished off one glass of Perrier while I was brought another, popped my earbuds in, turned on the Stephen Coonts audiobook I was listening to, and was lulled asleep by the 4 GE engines droning on yards away and below me, aimed for the bohemian paradise of Amsterdam.

About 7 and a half hours later I woke up, not groggy, not lagged, but remarkably refreshed, even though I was completely flat.  I opened my window shade to look out and sure enough, it was still night over the Atlantic, with a full moon in all its glory higher up in the heavens.  I took a look at the map on the screen and we were only 2 hours away from touchdown.  No sooner had I turned my head and reached for my Perrier, the flight attendant came by for the breakfast order.  They had a choice between a turkey, ham and cheese wrap, apple pie a la mode, or granola-topped yogurt.  Since I was on vacation, and I couldn't care less about making my arteries scream, I chose the turkey, ham, and cheese wrap, accompanied by a bowl of fruit, several croissants and a plate of cheese and jam.  Oh, and let us not forget the amazing Dilmah Tea (served straight black, of course).




With breakfast cleared, I reclined a bit and watched the map and gazed out the window as the sun rose over Western Europe.  A few twists and turns put us into the approach pattern for Schipol Airport and sooner than I would've liked we had a featherlight touchdown and quick taxi to the gate.

Overall,  KLM's Business Class is a fantastic way to cross the pond.  Thanks to the mistake made by the LAX ground crew, I got to experience it, and in nothing less than the grand dame herself, the iconic Boeing 747.  From what I have seen of newer planes, even though they are single seat window and aisle access seats, the new layouts seem almost...what's the word...antiseptic and bland.  The 747 and her iconic upper deck allow for the Premium classes to have their own space, without intruding past the other Economy or Economy Plus sections.  In the 747, KLM has a small Business Class section forward of the L1 entry, an oddly laid out galley that is parallel to the length of the cabin wall (this must make it MUCH easier for the crews), with Premium Economy in that space between the L1 and L2 entries, the main Business Class upstairs, and standard Economy in the 3 cabin sections from the wings aft.  The inflight service is fantastic, living up to the famed hospitality of the Dutch, with a storied and historic carrier that spans the globe.  The 747-400's days are sadly numbered, and are being replaced by newer, more efficient Boeing 777's and Airbus A330's and A350's.


Photo courtesy of KLM.com

Photo courtesy of KLM.com


**All photos my own except where noted**




Sunday, May 13, 2018

(Ancient) History In The Making: 4 Unforgettable Days in Athens, Greece





Last year it was announced that the ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents) were going to hold their annual Destination Expo for 2018 in Athens, Greece; I was skeptical.  I travel to Greece somewhat frequently (ever since I was a kid), and it was one thing as a kid I never noticed much aside from wanting to horse around and play with my cousins, it was another thing to be an adult and hearing what the Greeks said about the Americans under their breath.  But, that was then.  I registered for the Destination Expo (DE) with an open mind and signed up for several excursions during my stay.

Photo Credit Athens Hilton
So April finally made it's way around, and I left the US on April 2nd, and after an overnight in Los Angeles, and another overnight on a gorgeous KLM Boeing 747, I arrived in a very sunny Athens, Greece on the afternoon of April 4, and like always happened in the past, was picked up by my cousins and taken to my mom's village in Central Greece, in the mountains between Trikala and Kalambaka (home to the Monasteries of Meteora).  I spent 8 incredible days reconnecting and  hanging out with my family.  Then it was time to get down to Athens for the DE.

Having left Trikala in the morning, and after 5 different tolls (seriously, what is up with the toll roads?), we finally made it to the Hilton Athens by 2PM, and the bellman grabbed my suitcases and inside I went after a semi-tearful goodbye to my cousin.  What can I say, I'm a softie with this side of the family.  They've always been there for us.

Check-in was interesting.  I went to the front desk, gave my passport over, they looked me up, and told me they couldn't check me in, since I had a reservation on the Executive Floor.  So, I was directed to the elevators, and up to the 11th Floor I went to finally check in.  They had me in a 1 King Executive Room with an Acropolis View (at the ASTA DE Group Rate) room, and lemme tell ya, the room did NOT disappoint.  Seriously, how many people can say they fall asleep overlooking the Acropolis and Parthenon every night?  Suffice it to say, that first night was pretty amazing.

Day 1 of the DE was Saturday, April 12.  After breakfast and registration, where I was handed my credentials, along with DE program and AWESOME lanyard from Aegean Airlines, I was set up for a half-day Flavors of Athens: Fun Food Walking Tour put on by Athens Insiders, an Athens based tour operator that creates bespoke experiences not just in Athens, but around Greece as well.


So off we went, onto the motor coach that dropped us off just past Syntagma Square in the literal heart of Athens.  Our first stop was this cool little bakery that I had unknowingly visited the day before for some of the best tiropita (cheese pie) in the city.  Our tour guide came out with a box of mini tiropites and explained the history of the bakery, why she chose this one, and all about tiropites.


After a short walk a few blocks down, our next stop was a kafenion (coffee shop) that specializes in Bougatsa, a custard filled pastry popular in the northern part of Greece and the island of Crete.  Along with the flaky pastry, we were given demi-tasse cups of potent Greek Coffee, an offshoot of Turkish Coffee, although in my opinion, slightly more potent.  After drinking the majority of the coffee, I flipped my cup over and let the leftover grounds cool for a little bit before I tried my hand at fortune telling by reading the patterns of the grounds in the cup.  Not the expert older members of my family are in tasseography, I laughed it off with the rest of the group.

Back on the uneven streets of Athens, our lovely guide took us around to several different shops to see their wares.  First up was a fruit and nut shop that had some of the freshest fruits I have smelled in a long while.  After that we passed by an Olive shop that had buckets of freshly brined olives and gallons of olive oil for sale.  We stopped for a second here and the shop owner and guide explained the different types of olives and where they came from, and got to try a few.  I was impressed as this little shop was one of the few places outside Sparta that had Spartan olives, a slightly drier more bitter olive (but oh so tasty, I eat them by the handful back home!).

After that little stop, we made our way to the Varvakios Market where there are huge halls full of purveyors of the freshest meat, seafood, and produce in Greece.  Make no mistake, this place is huge.  But you better wear shoes, as it gets slippery in places (especially around the seafood stalls!).  Freshly slaughtered pigs, lambs, chickens and ducks were hung in stalls, huge King Prawns and Octopus were put on ice...and people, there were tons of people everywhere, just going about their daily business and buying food for their household.  I seriously liked the place, and can't wait to go back and hang out in one of the ouzeries for a shot of ouzo and some choice cuts of charcuterie.

Speaking of charcuterie, our next stop was at the oldest meat market in Athens, the Miran Pastourma shop, operating from the same location since it opened in 1922.  Our group was welcomed with open arms and led to the back where a table was set up for us with shots of Tsipouro, and trays of various cuts of meat, cheese, olives, and rye husks.  To be honest, I think this was one of the best meals ever, and something I'm quite used to as my own family eats like this for lunch more often than not.  The next time I come to Athens, I'm bringing my family here first before our trek to the village!

The 4 hour tour went by far too fast, and almost too soon, it was time to head back to the hotel.  Climbing aboard the motorcoach and relaxing with more tiropites on the way back to the Hilton was a great way to unwind before the rest of the night's festivities.  With the last tiropita packed away I made my way up to my room to freshen up and get ready.





The Hilton was gracious enough to host a poolside party that night, complete with copious amounts of food (when Greeks cook, they cook to feed entire armies), rivers of wine and ouzo, and a fantastic atmosphere where us Travel Agents partied hard.  Well, most of us, anyways, lol.  Struck up several good conversations that lasted well into the night.  Afterwards, I made my way up to the world renowned Galaxy Bar to check out the view from there and have a drink.  Not feeling tired, I hopped a cab and went to the Infinite Fox Heavy Metal Bar in the city and hung out there, soaking in some great hard rock and classic metal until the wee hours of the morning.

















Sunday turned out to be just as amazing as Saturday was.  The first event was a guided tour of the Acropolis Museum.  This museum is absolutely breathtaking and fascinating.  Our guide took us throughout the entire museum, and, since she is an archaeologist as well, explaining the excavation progress of the ruins that are directly underneath the museum.  There is a glass floor pedestrians walk on that goes right over the excavation into the museum that is absolutely breathtaking.





After the museum, it was a short walk down to the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the official kick off for the 2018 ASTA Destination Expo. Speakers included US Ambassador to Greece, Geoffrey Pyatt; Greek Tourism Minister Elena Kountoura, amongst others representing ASTA, FedHATTA, and the City of Athens, with both the US and Hellenic National Anthems being played by the Hellenic Navy Band and Greek Soprano Anastasia Zanni.  It was a great way to kickoff such a prestigious event.  I even had the pleasure of meeting Minister Kountoura on my way out of the Odeon (I hope someone can find the pic of me and her!).

We were bussed to Syntagma Square afterwards and sheparded into one of three hotels for lunch.  I was hoping for the Grande Bretagne, as I have a fondness for the history of it, but I ended up at the NJV Athens Plaza, which in itself is an amazing property as I was about to find out.  We started with drinks and hors d'oeveurs in the Explorer's Bar before lunch in the Parliament Restaurant.  And what a  lunch it was!  Most hotels offer guests some sort of rubber chicken entree, but here we were munching away on an amazingly luxurious lunch that included sole and veal.

After that amazing repast it was back to the hotel for the trade show, allowing me the chance to meet with a few suppliers that I didn't have appointments with the next day, making to note to stop by Emirates and Aegean Airlines no matter what.

Seemingly finished with the trade show, I went up and changed into my suit and tie for the amazing reception held at the Zappeion, smack in the middle of the National Gardens of Athens.  Pulling up (along with our police escorts) we were treated to the full red carpet treatment and band playing outside, welcoming us in to 4 different  anterooms lined with vendors and purveyors of some of Greece's most amazing wines, beers, coffees (of which I had a few), and other amazing finds.  Once all of the buses arrived, we were led into the Peristilio, smack in the center of the Zappeion, with its open air roof, made for an amazing centerpiece for tonight's festivities.  Aside from yet another AMAZING display of some of the best food Athens has to offer, there were several great performances that night by bands,
dancing troupes, and again with Anastasia Zanni and her golden voice.
A fabulous night all around.




Monday rolled around and after breakfast I ended up back at the trade show, stopping at several vendors that I missed the day before. After that were the B2B one on one appointments that were set up with various suppliers beforehand to learn more about products and services as they would apply to our specific clients.  Lasting 10 minutes each, I had one from the start at 1:00PM all the way to 4:30PM, however, I did skip a few for a break in between.  This is where I met a good majority of some amazing folks who are at the forefront of turning Greece around and you can tell by how fine tuned they were into coming up with bespoke offerings and services.  I left the appointments with a handful of suppliers I'm going to heavily use with my particular clients.

That evening's festivities were held at the Marina of Alimos, for the opening night of the Yachting Festival.  So many cool boats available for private hire, even a pirate ship!  Opening remarks by several dignitaries representing Alimos, Athens, Attica, and fedHATTA, to the amazing repast by the same folks that catered the Zappeion dinner (believe it or not, coming from me, the Octopus was amazing!), to the fantastic Captains and yacht owners, it was yet another amazing night that blew my mind away.  After a fantastic evening on the yachts several of us agents got the midnight munchies and went to the neighboring Ventrini Roast House for some grub.  Ever have a Gyro with Black Angus Tri-Tip?  Sweet Jesus, it was a religious experience for my taste buds.  And let's not get into the Spanakopita, it was unbelievable.  Definitely a carnivore's paradise, one that I will be returning to as often as I can.

The next morning my body decided I needed to sleep in.  I missed my excursion to Delphi, but that was ok with me, as I had to get my belongings together and switch rooms (my mistake, I booked the hotel for one day less than I was supposed to, thank you Hilton Hhonors for coming through with a last minute redemption!).  Not an Acropolis View room, anymore, it had a great view of the city to the East, which was still pretty epic.  Took the day to relax and unwind before the last excursion for my trip, the Athens by Night: Food Tour and Wine tasting, hosted by those wonderful folks at Greeking.me.

First stop was Ergon, a Greek Deli a block away from Syntagma Square.  They had us in a private dining room upstairs where we got to sample more Tsipouro, different cheeses and olives, and miniature rye rusks.  A heck of a way to get started.  From there it was to a real tourist heavy spot in Plaka which was packed with our group and other tourists.  The food was decent, much like what you'd find at some of the stateside Greek Festivals, and the entertainment was great too.  After that great dinner, we hiked to the Chocolat Royal, a cozy little bar and restaurant in the Thisio area with an AMAZING view towards the Acropolis.  We were giving a selection of 5 wines to taste from different areas of Greece.  Some were too dry for my taste, but there was this dessert wine, a honey wine, called Oinomelo.  It was so sweet, so tasty, I should've bought a case or 3.  The evening came to an end far too soon, and it was back on the bus for my last night at the Athens Hilton.

My biggest take away from this amazing trip was not just what the suppliers and vendors and everyone else had to offer, but the difference I've noticed in the Greeks than from when I've visited in years past.  We the Greeks invented Filoxenia, the art of treating foreigners with a sense of hospitality like they were family, which, on this great planet we inhabit, we are.




* All photos the author's except where noted.