Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Ya, Mon! The Jet Lag Junkie Journals Jamaica (and other exciting locales) Pt. 1

As this is in journal form, it is a tad rougher around the edges than my normal posts.

Friday, September 14, 2018 - Salt Lake City, Utah and Los Angeles, California

For once I did NOT have an early morning pre-dawn departure out of Salt Lake City.  So instead of driving myself to the airport as I usually do, I got a lift from my Mom in her brand new Jeep.  After a few quick errands, we made it to the airport in decent time, all the while explaining my trepidations about this trip to her in full detail.

Check in was a snap as usual with American Airlines, and I managed to see some of my friends there as well.  Through Security I went and since I have CLEAR, I breezed right through, without having to take my shoes and belt off.  Stopped by the tech store for a new set of headphones before ending up at gate F5 (formerly A5, renamed the F Gates due to the new airport construction and concourse realignment going on), where my ride to LAX was waiting, a 3 Year Old Embraer 175 regional jet.

Having paid extra for the increased space of Main Cabin Extra (American's Premium Economy product, and more often than not a fantastic deal if available at check-in, in this case for a paltry additional $35), I settled into my seat, and before I knew it, we had pushed back and were on our way out to the West runway for departure.  Takeoff was quick, and I was surprised at the power the 175 has, and how quiet it is at full takeoff power.  Seeing as how I was in the window seat, I passed right out after takeoff and slept most of the way to LAX.

Waking up as we passed over Big Bear Lake and into the Los Angeles valley, we floated down the runway and stopped short of crossing the other runway to allow for a departing flight to takeoff before pulling up to American's Commuter terminal.  I have to admit, I love coming into LAX on American from SLC, I have a soft spot for the Commuter terminal, too, as it affords me the chance to ride the shuttle to American's main terminal (where baggage claim is), allowing me to drool over the planes going to and fro on the South Runways, as well as seeing all the planes up close and personal parked at the gates from Terminal 7 to Terminal 5.

Quickly off the plane and down the ramp I went, and found myself in a MASSIVE line waiting for the shuttle to Terminal 5 (thankfully with only ONE piece of luggage this time!).  By the time I got to Baggage Claim, my bag was already waiting for me, so I grabbed it and ran out the door to wait for my ride to the Hilton LAX.

I didn't have to wait long at all, and it was no more than 25 minutes from touchdown to checking in at the hotel, pushing my way upstream through a group of senior passengers trying to get on the bus as we were truing to get off, let alone collect our luggage!  Easy, people!

As a Hilton HHonors member, check in was a snap, they had my keys and bottles of water ready, I even got an upgrade to a corner view room.  The way up to the 13th floor was entertaining in it's own right, as the elevators require you to punch in your floor before entering, and you will be assigned an elevator to take you up, with no controls inside the car.  It was hilarious watching people run into the elevator you are in all willy nilly, then silently watch them as they freak out at realizing there are no buttons to push for their floor ANYWHERE, then watch the look on their faces as they realize the gaffe they made.

My room was 1330, with an unbelievable view of the South Runway complex on one end, and the entire arrival/approach area on the other, with a work desk conveniently placed in between both windows, offering killer views whilst tapping away and keeping up with my clients ( a Travel Agent's work is NEVER done, after all).  I was in avgeek heaven that night, as my Instagram feed shows!  I could literally spend hours upon hours from that vantage point, and let me tell you, it was hard for me to not get distracted from time to time.  Thank God I pushed through, otherwise, I would've had some pretty annoyed clients (and coworkers) back home.

Because I left a few things pending at work, I grabbed my phone, laptop and briefcase and headed up to the Executive Lounge on the 16th Floor (again with the awesome fool=proof elevators) to plug away and finish up what I could in the waning hours of the last workday of the week, while my travel suppliers were open, and having access to some of my trusted co-workers back in Utah to help me out.  I didn't finish up until about 9PM, and thankfully the lounge had some great appetizers and dinner choices that night.

Saturday, September 15, 2018 - Los Angeles, California

Waking up to the rumblings of of something large and heavy, I waddled to the window in time to see a ghost white Boeing 747-400F rumble down the runway.  Now THAT'S my kind of wake up call!

It took less than a few minutes to get myself ready and I headed back up to the Executive Lounge to grab some breakfast to no avail, thanks to it being completely packed with Asian tourists from wall to wall, with no seats available and all the food being gobbled up in record pace.  So I shelved that idea, and went out of the hotel and next door to Carl's Jr. to clog my arteries.

Due to my status in the HHonors program, I was allowed a late checkout of 1:30PM, which was absolutely perfect for me, as I did have work to continue before I played around later that day.  Once downstairs, though, i simply checked out of my room, asked to have access to the lounge until 6PM, and left my luggage with the bell desk until ready to hop to shuttle back to LAX.  Made sure to grab my travel bear, Philbin (more on him in another post), and out I went, making my way to the Mecca for us avgeeks, the In N Out Burger joint on the periphery of LAX at the corner of El Segundo Blvd. and Westchester Parkway.  Being the avgeek paradise spot that it is, there were quite a few out there today as I (and Philbin, of course) enjoyed my animal style burger and fries, whilst watching the afternoon arrivals from around the world come screaming in from above.  I spent a good 3-4 hours just basking in the Southern California Sun, fast food scents, and jet engine sounds.  Easily my favorite thing to do in LA, I've brought Susie here, I REALLY want to bring my Dad here, I know he'd enjoy a burger and Coke and watching the planes come in.

Returning to the hotel (after a NASTY tumble on the sidewalks of El Segundo walking back), I spent the last few hours in the Executive Lounge tending to my bruised and battered arm, as well as having a stiff pre-departure beverage or two to ease the aches and pain.  The Lounge was pretty empty even though it was getting on in the afternoon and the hors d'oeuvres were just being rolled out.  Knowing I wouldn't be eating on the plane, I filled up a few plates and enjoyed watching the late afternoon departures to Europe and Asia find their way skywards into the Sun.

Back at LAX to begin the next phase of the trip, the AAA sponsored FAM (familiarization) at the Sandals Ochi Beach Resort in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.  From LAX it was just a matter of hopping on American Airlines with a stop in Miami, and onto Kingston.  Unfortunately, the red-eye flight from LAX to Miami is on American Airlines new Boeing 737 MAX 8.  There have been so many bad reviews about the plane that I was wondering if I should just eat the cost and change my ticket to a different flight, but, being the consummate travel professional I am, I had to give the bird a chance.

Dreading the regular Economy Class seating crunch, I gladly paid to upgrade again to Main Cabin Extra, hoping against all hope not to add to the negativity surrounding the MAX 8.  The seating in MCE isn't bad, but the window seats are definitely a bit cramped.  The ride would've been great, as there was no one in the middle seat, until the very last minute before the door closed for pushback.  A non-rev was boarded and sure enough, they plunked him down next to me, and he was NOT a small person, neither was the guy in the aisle seat.  So I did what I do best, and slept the majority of the way to Miami.  Halfway through the flight, I got a little antsy, and I couldn't wait to land and start breathing normally again.

Sunday, September 16, 2018 - Miami, Florida and Kingston, Jamaica

Arrival into Miami was great, and a bit early, so I hurried off the plane, slightly disappointed the MAX 8 left such a negative imprint on me.  I am definitely going to second guess my travel options when I see this as the equipment type.

My layover in Miami was 4 hours long, but went by quickly, thanks to grabbing a bite to eat and taking my meds the instant I got into the concourse.  Found a cozy corner by my departure gate, turned on my music and cracked open my latest book to while away the time.

The flight to Kingston was far more comfortable than the MAX 8, as this was on an older not as cramped Boeing 737-800, and the hour long flight passed by quickly.  Before I knew it, we were on our way into Kingston, and I have to admit here, I was shocked at the size of the airport...and how it looked.  It took a while to get offloaded, considering I was in the 2nd to last row, and I gradually made my way down the jetway and into Customs, which took about an hour and a half to get through, considering how many people were in line from the 2 flights that just came in aside from mine, and how slow the Jamaican officials were.

Even after that long wait in Customs, I still had to wait for my luggage, then I finally made my way to the Sandals Resorts transfer desk, and before I knew it, in a shocking display of speed by the Sandals agents, I found myself in a private van and on my way to the resort, even though we must've taken the bumpiest road possible, because I shook, rattled, and rolled ALL the way to Ocho Rios.  More on that in the next installment, though.

Part II of the Jet Lag Junkie Journals Jamaica will be published on Monday, October 1, 2018.  Stick around!

Friday, September 7, 2018

Puddle Jumping: Hopping the Pond to New Adventures

Photo credit Joe Pries

Back in the olden, golden days of flying, to get to anywhere remotely off the beaten path in Europe you had to get on a flight from your local airport, to (usually) New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, where depending on the airline, you were hoarded into a cavernous cabin of a Boeing 747 of either International icons of TWA, one of the myriad International carriers that berthed at the International Arrivals Building, or even the much forsaken Pan Am, then off to a European Capitol, where you would connect yet again to exotic locales like Zagreb, Athens, or Naples.  In those days, it was simply inconceivable to ask for nonstop access to cities like these from any point in North America.

Fast forward 30 years or so.  With the advent of aircraft such as the Airbus A350, Boeing 787 and longer ranges on the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families, airlines are now taking advantage of routes previously not considered, or routes that used to operate, but were never profitable for any variety of reasons.  Let's take a look at 3 of them.

Route 1:  Chicago/O'Hare - Athens, Greece

This route is near and dear to my heart, for a few reasons, not just because I am a proud Greek.  The history of service from North America to Greece goes back to March 31, 1946, when TWA began service from Washington, DC to Athens, with stops in New York, Gander, Shannon, Paris, and Rome.  Nonstop service from New York followed in 1966 with Boeing 707's, and Olympic Airways joined the fray with their own 707 (and later Boeing 747) services from Athens to New York, Boston, Toronto, Montreal, and Chicago...which is where this tale starts.

American Airlines recently announced a boat load of new European services for Summer 2019, and finally, after a LONG time waiting, and an online campaign that sparked an entire group on social media (Chicago-Athens Nonstop) and led to a petition signed by over 1,700 people clamoring for such service (spearheaded by yours truly,  Chicago-Athens Petition), new service to Athens will commence from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, using the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

What makes this route work is not just the size and economics of the plane used, but also the immense connecting opportunities American Airlines has in and out of Chicago, as well as the local O&D (Origin & Destination) travelers, Chicago being 2nd largest Greek community outside the New York City area.  With a departure time of 5:10PM and arrival the next morning at 11:30AM, the flight is perfectly time for those folks making connections from smaller communities in the Western US, thereby eliminating making a double connection to get to Athens.  On the Greek side, this arrival time makes for quite a few more convenient connections to other Greek destinations.

The return flight is also well timed for those coming from the islands, with an afternoon departure of 1:30PM, arriving into Chicago by 5:25PM, right in the middle of the evening rush of International departures, and rush hour traffic.  With American's powerful hub, dozens of connecting opportunities exist as well, especially to places on the West Coast such as Denver, Salt Lake City, Billings, Reno, Las Vegas, and Seattle.

Route 2:  Newark, NJ - Naples, Italy

Photo Credit Joe Pries
This flight looks incredibly interesting to me, as up to now, there really hasn't been much for travel from North America to Italy, aside from the typical arrival points of Rome, Milan, and Venice.  For a travel agent like me, with as many bookings as I get for Southern Italy and Naples, this flight makes all the sense in the world, even if it is operated by aging Boeing 767 aircraft.  United is definitely trying to reclaim the title of New York's #1 Airline that was held by predecessor Continental Airlines for decades before.

The beauty of this flight is the arrival time in Naples of 8:05AM.  Now, there's a few options for connections out of Naples, but the majority of folks coming off the United flight will be heading south to the Amalfi Coast, or Sicily.  Plenty of time to catch their bus, taxi or private ride down.  I predict this flight will see more than its fair share of people on holiday packages like those provided by Perillo Tours or Homeric Tours from the USA, checking out the beauty of Southern Italy.

I for one, would love to try this flight out, and maybe I will this coming Summer.

Route 3:  Philadelphia - Dubrovnik, Croatia

Photo credit Joe Pries
It amazes me how this offering took so long to come to fruition.  Back in the 80's and 90's the old JAT Yugoslav Airlines used to fly to New York's JFK from Zagreb with DC-10's off and on.  Now with Croatia's tourism exploding higher and higher these last few years, this should've been a no-brainer from the start.  As with United's flight to Naples, I fully expect to see American fill their 767 to the brim with packaged tourists making the most out of their unforgettable trips to Croatia.

You might be pondering why American would start such a flight from Philadelphia, and not from New York or even Chicago.  Well, Since it's merger with US Airways, American inherited the massive hub in Philadelphia, full of connections from all over the US.  Yes, American has a very large focus city in New York at JFK Airport, however, that they use for the higher yielding business traffic that is covered by corporate contracts to London, the West Coast, and other select destinations.  AA tries hard not to send the leisure tourists through their JFK terminal, and instead routes the majority of all seasonal European services through Philadelphia and Charlotte.

Well, that is my look at 3 of the new routes coming out for Summer 2019.  I'd love to hear any feedback from my followers and fans!

Photo credit Joe Pries