Three terrific Tennessee hotels

April 6, 2021

On a recent college visit road trip to Sewanee (University of the South) in Tennessee where our daughter may go to school next year, we stayed in two Best Westerns and a big Hilton.  We also visited a legendary ancient hotel in Nashville to take in the atmosphere.  Our first Best Western was a dud, its shortfalls I illuminated last week, but the other three properties—each perfectly-suited for serving its unique niche—left us wanting to return.

A BETTER BEST WESTERN

After our disappointing stay at the dreary and absurdly-named BW “Royal” Inn in Chattanooga, I was apprehensive about the following two nights at another Best Western, this one in little Winchester, Tennessee. My concerns disappeared after arrival.  Check-in was polished, friendly, and swift at a real front desk (no bulletproof glass). I noticed right away that the property was clean, well-kept, modern and even boasted 6 EV charging stations (two per stanchion).

The room was spotless and comfortable, as well as quiet. The following morning heavy frost on a chilly morning (34° F.) blanketed our windshield and hotel roof.

A surprisingly good breakfast spread capped our upgrade to a large room with kitchenette (full stove and fridge) and a great shower (water pressure I only dream of at home). Heck, without my glasses, the modest place was almost like a one-story Waldorf!

And for train lovers like me, you can hear CSX freight trains blowing all night for a crossing in nearby Dechard on the old Louisville & Nashville rail line between Nashville and Atlanta.

I fell in love with that unassuming Best Western, so much superior to the dump in Chattanooga.  A friend reminded me that the BW chain’s U.S. properties tend to wide quality variation due to a great deal of management discretion by individual owners and insufficient brand oversight.

The clean and affordable Winchester hotel caters to the construction trade, with big trucks galore down the parking lot Monday to Friday.  At the end of the work day, the guys and gals lit up charcoal grills on the far side of the parking area adjacent to a muddy field and cooked their steaks while enjoying cans of beer from beat-up old coolers and smoking cigarettes.  I enjoyed taking in that tableau of pure Americana.

A HUGE & IMPECCABLE HILTON

Still on our college visit trip, we stopped one night in Nashville. Our beds were at the giant Hilton Nashville Airport. It was an extremely comfortable, operating-room-clean, modern property, with a fine staff, even if sitting soullessly adjacent to thoroughfares, as the second picture below attests.

Everywhere at this big property—almost 400 rooms—the staff at all levels were smiling and spontaneously helpful.  I interacted with managers, front desk clerks, housekeepers, and wait staff in both the bar and the restaurant and experienced friendly and professional attitudes all round.  What a great difference the human touch can make, especially in such a big hotel as that one.

Our room (1303) was extraordinarily quiet and conducive to rest.  Bed comfort was superb, and we slept well.  The next morning’s breakfast pancakes with bacon and maple syrup were as delicious as my hard-to-beat standard, the perfect pancakes served at the Hay-Adams Hotel on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC. Although, I admit, the view of the White House from the Hay-Adams restaurant beats the BNA Airport Hilton’s of the interstate (a small nit).

The Hilton’s size and meeting rooms make it a natural meeting and conference property, and its close proximity to the Nashville Airport certainly attracts steady business as well (in normal times, of course, when we can travel freely, hopefully soon returning).  Based on my observations, I’m sure it has a reputation for efficiency and cleanliness, too.

THE UNMATCHED HERMITAGE HOTEL

It’s unfair to contrast the BNA Airport Hilton and the Best Western in rural Winchester, each well-suited to satisfy specific hostelry niches, with the soulful, tranquil, and historic Hermitage Hotel in downtown Nashville near the Tennessee State Capitol.  We didn’t spend a night there, but did enjoy the graceful mood of the old palace in the lobby bar.  There I enjoyed house-made deviled eggs topped with chef’s recipe Tennessee chow-chow relish, complemented perfectly with a glass of heavenly Justin cabernet.

The Hermitage boasts one of the deepest bourbon lists anywhere. Note the one and two ounce prices on the single page I photographed of the bourbon and Tennessee whiskey menu.  And that’s just one page. The Hermitage keeps an entire menu book of such local bourbon, many pages more like the one shown.  Not a bourbon drinker, I chose not to partake of those rare distilled spirits, though I wondered whether the 1993 Buffalo Trace would knock my socks off or just dent my Amex card.

The elegant Hermitage ambiance was the highlight of a very pleasant afternoon we spent walking around downtown Nashville. Like the Hilton and Best Western, I recognize the unique lodging niche the Hermitage fulfills.  It’s a one-of-a-kind Nashville luxury property steeped in history and holding its own in the 21st century. 

The Best Western, Hilton, and Hermitage, each so distinctly different from one another, impressed me as places I’d happily rest my head and relax. Next time I have a reason to be in Nashville, I hope to splurge on the Hermitage for least a night or two.  Truth be told, though, I liked all three hotels.

Not the best Best Western

April 1, 2021

First night out on a recent college visit road trip to Sewanee (University of the South) where our daughter may go to school next year, we stayed in Chattanooga. We chose the Best Western Royal Inn because it was dog-friendly and close to Rock City on Lookout Mountain, a dramatic overlook of Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee which my wife and daughter wanted to see.  Despite the regal appellation, however, the property seemed anything but “royal.”

Yeah, it’s called the Best Western ROYAL Inn, but my doubts blossomed while waiting to register inside the claustrophobic, phone booth-sized “front desk” area, as this wide angle photo memorialized:

Royal, my butt, I thought, as I viewed the formal attire hanging on the slouching frame of the haggard Alabama smoker checking in ahead of me.  Nothing royal about it, and situated in what looked like a high crime area next to a Wal-Mart literally on the wrong side of the tracks (CSX trains run day and night nearby). Lots of empty Jack Daniels and cheaper liquor bottles strewn along the connecting muddy driveway to the Wal-Mart. Gutters smell like a Marseille pissoir.

Check-in in broad daylight was behind a security window with bulletproof glass. The old lady on duty claimed it was due to the pandemic.

“You installed this inner city, bank-style security screen just in response to Covid?” I asked, raising my eyebrows (the only facial expression visible with my mask on).

“Well, you know,” she said resignedly, and shrugged.

I didn’t know, actually, but something insincere about the woman’s overly-pleasant demeanor stopped me from badgering her about it. I could tell it would do no good. I figured she was used to dealing with all kinds and probably had an emergency call button just under the counter to summon the police for whiners like me. Only AFTER she had charged my Amex card, naturally.

Still, it stuck in my craw that room and tax came to $147.12 + $20 pet fee (we brought our dog because our dog-sitter was unavailable).  So I couldn’t help asking her what justified that premium price for such a low-class place in a rundown neighborhood.

“SPRING BREAK!” came her quick reply with a toothy grin (the old lady was maskless behind the thick glass).

“Yeah,” she went on, “That no-name place across the street is charging $308 a night this weekend, AND THEY ARE NO BETTER THAN WE ARE!  Heck, YOU got a discount!” 

(I provided my AAA number for the unquantified discount.)

No better than we are?? Quite the accolade, I thought.

And Spring Break? I’m pretty sure Chattanooga doesn’t have a sunny beach on the ocean, though maybe the Tennessee riverfront attracts some.

But I decided not to push my luck further. I just smiled and gave her my credit card through the security slot at the bottom of the bulletproof glass.

Pet-friendly rooms, it turns out, have no carpet. The shiny fake hardwood floor made our room even more sterile than the threadbare dive it already was.

Oddly, the room wasn’t supplied with hand towels, either.

But our dog liked it, and, hey, it was ROYAL!

United eats Delta’s lunch on price to Johannesburg

March 23, 2021

As I mused last week over fancy wining and dining aboard U.S. airline flights overseas in the heyday of premium service—surely the maximum service one could dream of while hurtling through the stratosphere at Mach 0.85, my trip down luxury flying’s memory lane reminded me of the minimum I’ve come to long for on a plane: a modicum of comfort without stress.  For me these days, premium economy fits the bill.  With inconsequential differences in PE cabin comfort and space between United and Delta, it was a no-brainer to recently book UA when DL’s fare was 50% higher.

Sure, I enjoyed classy comestibles and libation served in the front cabins of North American airline flights plying international routes in the era from the 80s to the early 2000s.  I feel real lucky to have been there/done that. Pawing through my remaining menu memorabilia, I found more exquisite offerings of wine and food on foreign airlines, including Sabena, Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, British Air, Swissair, Air New Zealand, QANTAS, Asiana, Cathay Pacific, Thai Air, Malaysia Air, Japan Air, Singapore Air, Varig, and South African Airways.

That was then.  Today, international premium economy seats and service are adequate for my needs. 

Of course I opt for international business class whenever I can get into it, either for money or miles or loyalty or just a lucky upgrade.  Business class is not as deluxe as the sharp end services of yore, but the privacy, service, and sleeper seats are superb.

Nonetheless, premium economy is my long-haul flying mainstay.  PE is comfortable and private enough, even if the service can be a tad like cattle class (Air New Zealand, Delta).  Or sometimes exactly like economy (United).  Although premium economy service can also tilt in the direction of business class (Cathay Pacific, Singapore). 

I don’t care that much about those service nuances as long as my premium economy seat is a bit wider than coach, has more pitch (legroom), reclines enough that I can doze, and is in its own cabin right behind business for an easy exit at the arrival gate. All those elements are true of every premium economy I’ve tried so far. 

It’s not that I ignore other aspects.  Naturally, I value safety because, well, who doesn’t want to arrive in one piece?  I think it’s reasonable to expect not to be killed or maimed when stepping inside a jet-propelled aluminum/carbon-fiber tube to go someplace. 

Schedule reliability and convenience, network reach and partnerships, competitive fares, and helpful customer service are also factors to be considered.  After those basics, most PE offerings are good when I fly abroad.

No airline has won more of my PE business for price and comfort over the past few years than Delta.  So when I recently looked for premium economy fares from Raleigh to Johannesburg for two upcoming trips—my first international journeys since the pandemic lockdown began—I was surprised to find that Delta’s ticket cost was $800 more than United’s—making Delta 50% more expensive.

Which made me ask myself, Is Delta’s PE, which I’ve come to like, worth such a big price difference?  After all, most premium economy seat size, pitch, and placement vary only slightly. 

To find out for sure, I checked dimensions on seatguru.com for the UA 787 configuration to be used on United’s new nonstop EWR/JNB and compared to the PE stats on Delta’s new A350 planes being introduced to replace 777s on its longstanding nonstop ATL/JNB. 

On those two aircraft, UA’s PE, which it calls Premium Plus, boasts seat width of 19” and pitch of 38” in a 2-3-2 configuration (7 across versus 9 across in coach), while Delta’s PE, named Premium Select, offers 18.5” seat width and 38” pitch in a 2-4-2 configuration (8 across versus 9 across in coach).  Both DL and UA premium economy seats are in their own cabins sandwiched between business and economy.  (Every other airline’s PE can be seen at seatguru.com as well, such as Cathay’s and Singapore’s 19.5” width and 38” pitch.) 

Thus, I confirmed that seat comfort on both UA and DL are about the same.  What about service? 

On the two flights to Johannesburg (United and Delta), I know from experience that Delta’s PE service is skimpy, but consistent, whereas United’s PE service in other markets is reputed to be nearly nonexistent.  UA flight attendants working the middle cabin (PE) can be hard to find, so say some reviews.  So not a lot of difference between carriers.

Schedules?  About the same.  Both United and Delta nonstop arrive Johannesburg late afternoon, and both Newark and Atlanta have good connecting flights to the over-water plane.

That leaves only price as a differentiator.  United is pushing its new nonstop entry from Newark—presumably filling the USA/Johannesburg nonstop niche left when South African Airways went belly up—pegging the RDU/EWR/JNB roundtrip fare in premium economy a bargain at just over $1600.  Delta, however, has not competed, with its RDU/ATL/JNB roundtrip fare in PE holding at a steady $2400+. 

The $800 difference made it an easy choice for me to go with United despite its reputed lousy service because United and Delta PE offerings are neck and neck in seat comfort.

Hence, United, an airline I’ve avoided like the plague since the early 90s for its protracted abysmal service, gets my business on two upcoming trips over Delta solely on the fare chasm, despite my peon status as a “general” (non-elite) member of the United MileagePlus program versus my lofty elite status as a Delta Lifetime Platinum with 5.5 million SkyMiles. 

I do love Delta, and I really, REALLY don’t like United, but, hey, saving sixteen hundred dollars for the two trips is like getting a third one for free.  Even if it’s on crummy old United.

When sumptuous service was standard on U.S. airlines

March 17, 2021

Last week I admired international first class menu cover art from airlines around the world in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s, but stopped short of turning the page.  This week I take a look inside the menus at what U.S. airlines were offering up front by way of food and drink in those glory years of overseas long-hauls.  For the moment, I’ll focus just on what our own American carriers presented to their top customers to compete for their trade on flights outside the United States.

Even though I was aboard on all those flights, looking back surprises me.  How quickly I’ve adjusted to less than the best.  I guess that North American airlines have largely succeeded in dumbing down my expectations of fine and elegant wining and dining when I’m fortunate enough to snag a seat in today’s Business Class cabin.  Admitting, that is, that my baseline for comparison is pre-Covid; post-Covid sharp end service is yet to be revealed.

During that period, Delta, Northwest, United, and American vied for premium customer business by offering spectacular food and drink in what was then rightly called “First Class” before Business Class was invented.  Offerings were equal to or better than those of vaunted Singapore Airlines. 

My most astonishing discovery—which I’d totally forgotten—was that Delta was pouring Krug Champagne on its flights across the Pacific.  Krug!  And a vintage Krug, no less, one-upping the nonvintage brut Krug on Singapore.  Not even Concorde served me Krug.  Yet here it is on the wine menu from the airline that grew from spraying cotton fields in the South:

Krug wasn’t the only fine Champagne Delta was doling out in First Class in that era.  Taittinger Comtes de Champagne is a luxury blanc de blancs cuvee (100% Pinot Chardonnay grapes) I enjoyed aboard DL87 Los Angeles to Hong Kong in September, 1994:

In my flying experiences it was exceedingly rare to see the beautiful hand-painted flower bottle of Perrier-Jouet “Belle Epoque” Champagne, which is among my favorites.  I was happy to see it on my Delta flight, which I believe was one of many comfortable rides on Delta’s MD-11s across the Pacific:

Praising the Champagne—my fave adult in-flight beverage—I did not intend to give short shrift to Delta’s dining options on many of those same flights.  At one point the airline featured delightful entrees from Bayona, famed New Orleans chef Susan Spicer’s French Quarter jewel of a restaurant where I’ve feasted many times over the decades.  Bayona is a veritable garden of earthly delights, with many scrumptious creole dish options.  Seeing a Susan Spicer dish on the menu en route to Taipei came across as especially exotic, made even more so by seeing the dual description in Chinese characters. 

Note, too, the Sevruga caviar option on the facing page left.  I enjoyed a second serving!

On a homeward flight from Hong Kong, Delta outdid itself by offering Sevruga caviar and goose liver pate as appetizers, followed by lobster bisque.  Tough choice, so I had all three.  I remember relishing the three appetizers in multiple portions and then forgoing the entrée and dessert for fear my arteries would burst.  Accompanied by either Krug, Taittinger, or Perrier-Jouet.  Take that, SQ!  Food and wine at 35,000 feet doesn’t get much better.

Such spreads weren’t only available trans-Pacific. From Germany, Delta in First Class made sure Sevruga caviar was on even the lunch menu, as shown below (from Munich, I think).

Delta coughed up some serious money to put top-quality Beluga caviar (from the Black Sea) on offer as an appetizer on another flight over the Atlantic, along with lobster medallions and scallops.

Delta wasn’t the only airline offering classic New Orleans fare from famous French Quarter chefs on flights in the Far East.  Northwest bragged about its grilled salmon with “oriental mustard glaze” from the Crescent City’s Windsor Court Hotel.  I had to read it several times as I pondered what seemed an oxymoron of a recipe combining Cajun New Orleans culinary with an East Asian sauce.  But then it clicked:  New Orleans cooks have made mouth-watering, cross-cultural cuisine for centuries—and flavorful sauces are quintessential to both South Louisiana and the Orient.

Northwest was always a classy outfit with a great sensitivity and respect for Asian cultures.  The same First Class menu, given to me on a NW flight from Seoul to Tokyo, featured the Windsor Court description four languages, including English (above), with separate pages (below) in Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

Some other airlines did the same, as this Canadian Airlines First Class menu from a 1994 flight Bangkok to Hong Kong illustrates.

United over the big Pacific was, like Delta, mindful that it was competing against monster service from Cathay, Japan Airlines, Singapore, and others.  UA tended to put on the dog to win business on those routes, serving Dom Perignon and, in my memory, always keeping my glass topped off with fully chilled Champagne.  At that time United senior FAs twice slipped me an entire bottle of Dom to go in a bag as I left the 747 front cabin, once arriving in Tokyo, and on another occasion in Hong Kong.

In what struck me as a paradox, United also offered Chandon on the same page as Dom, the California version of bubbly by the Dom maker.  Who, I wondered, would choose Chandon over Dom? No contest!

United was thoughtful in presenting caviar correctly as its own course and not an appetizer, and it paired luxury Black Sea Beluga fish eggs with ice-cold vodka in the Russian tradition.  Very nicely done, I always thought, and I remember plenty of Beluga was stocked for those of us who wanted seconds.  Or even thirds.  After all, caviar isn’t fattening.

I remember that American Airlines mostly brought up the rear in the race for international First Class food and drink.  This menu, which I believe came from a European flight, at least shows a caviar offering.  However, AA has crammed everything onto facing pages—a slap in the face to style—and the mention of caviar is cavalier, with no distinction of source (Caspian, Sevruga, Beluga, etc.), as well as being lost among the list of appetizers. 

Heck, even the “warm nuts” comes before caviar.  Not very classy for First Class overseas.  On the other hand, I recall that few fellow passengers opted for black fish eggs, and the flight attendants were more than happy to bring all the leftovers to me for finish off, which prompted me to donate my chateaubriand entrée to the galley for their dining pleasure behind the curtain.  My generosity was rewarded again later with both a hot fudge and a butterscotch sundae.

First class menus as art

March 9, 2021

After five decades of international front cabin flying, I reckon the pinnacle came in the 1980s, 90s, and early 2000s before real First Class was eclipsed by Business Class on most airlines.  I didn’t get to do it often, but I count myself lucky to have occasionally tasted—both figuratively and literally—what was on offer in global First Class during that era.  I appreciated the superior services on several levels, including the creativity and art—or the lack thereof—appearing on the wine and food menus presented to me on board.

As I wrote last week, those flights created rich experiences in my memory.  Pandemic solitude has given me time to look back and savor those recollections. I’ve poured over the menus initially on the basis of “curb appeal” before cracking the covers.  Arguably, well-conceived menu covers should create expectation and anticipation of delicious things inside.

I guess I wasn’t surprised to find that the three major U.S. carriers—Delta, United, and American—didn’t seem to value menu cover art design.  With one exception: Delta did produce some artsy work briefly, just before it gutted its international First Class cabins in favor of solely Business Class offerings.  Of the big three, United’s menu covers won the most-drab award (so downright ugly that I decided not even to include it). The UA menus were also the flimsiest and smallest, printed on glossy, thin paper and prone to smearing.  Just shy of despicable, the pieces seem like a marketing afterthought. 

Slightly less dreary came American Airlines menus, festooned with its logo in case I forgot on which airline I was flying (though I appreciated the toucan backdrop), like this example from a Miami-Caracas A330, if I recall correctly:

To be fair, AA, like Delta, at one point suddenly showed a flare for art on its menus, though, sadly, it didn’t last:

Delta came in third from the bottom, in my opinion, showing little creativity, but at least prone to a penchant for color and heavier cardstock.  The filigree edge look, though, somehow made me think of the 1960s and 70s, years I recall with gaudy designs in poor taste.

For a brief period, maybe a year or so, Delta upped its menu game with colorful designs that made me want to open and read, like this one:

Back in the day, Northwest had great service in First, too, as this pretty menu exemplifies on my flight between Singapore and Narita:

Canadian Airlines was not to be outdone flying overseas, either, as this highly attractive, Asian-themed menu proclaims from a 1994 flight in First Class on the carrier between Bangkok and Hong Kong:

One of the most elaborate, largest, and heaviest menus came from Varig’s First Class aboard 747s in the early 90s.  Note at the time Varig briefly partnered in a code share with Delta, acknowledged by the discreet Delta logo adjacent to the home airline logo at the bottom right:

Another impressively hefty and classy set of menus came from South African Airways in the 80s and early 90s before their decline, like these beauties:

South African Airways tended to vary its menu look more often than most carriers, as this alternate set of First Class bills of fare prove:

The original Swissair (not the reborn Swiss Air) had a holistic view of how to package their First Class services everywhere in the world they flew.  Their reputation for elegant and refined First Class was well-deserved, as their beautiful menus hinted:

Back then British Airways was a proud—some groused smug—airline that catered to those who sought the best in comfort and sophisticated forward cabin amenities, including wining and dining.  The simple style of these menus implied luxury:

British Airways freshened its menu designs from time to time, but hewed to elegance, like these from BA009 London-Bangkok-Sydney:

Air France from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Beijing in First Class on a then-new 777 presented me with this surprisingly uninspiring menu cover, though what was inside excited my salivary sense.  I expected something with more pizzazz from the French:

Even KLM, known for its pragmatic Dutch everyman approach to minimize distinctions of class, had Royal Class, which was roughly equal to First Class without calling it that, and their menus reflected grace:

Trans-Pacific air routes teemed with great First Class choices.  Air New Zealand, small though it was, was a gracious host on long-haul flights, with beautiful menus like these between Sydney and Los Angeles:

Hardly any carrier on earth could match the stylish flourishes of Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong, with up front menus like this 1994 beauty:

But the fabulous South Korean carrier Asiana gave Cathay a run for its money and made me a loyal customer on unforgettable flights with menus like these between L.A. and Seoul:

Of course Singapore Air was a master in marketing its First Class to Asia and no slouch in sharp end service once on board, either, as this wine menu teases:

Malaysia Air had spectacular First Class service in those days aboard its 747s, though I was careful not to book the airline’s flights that stopped in Tokyo.  Those NRT legs catered to Japanese smokers, with Malaysia, I believe I recall, the last carrier to ban on-board cigarette smoking.  This dinner menu is enticing, but Malaysia also boasted one of the great pre-flight lounge fine dining experiences at Kuala Lumpur, even better than Virgin Atlantic’s famed Upper Class lounge meals:

Japan Airlines service and trappings have always impressed me with understated panache and polish, most especially in the front cabin.  The cover photo on this menu alone created a certain calm ambiance for the long flight to Narita:

Emirates and Qatar are the epitome of great airline service even now with primarily Business Class premium services.  Back when every Emirates long-haul had true First Class, the airline killed me with kindness and top-notch meals and wines, even if the menu blatantly bragged on its Dom Perignon Champagne with a crass photo of the bottle.  Still, I never go wrong flying in the front cabins of Emirates or Qatar:

If I am honest with myself, I can’t remember a more whimsical—bordering on inane—subject matter post than this one: airline menu art!  And yet it was great fun to critique the history of overseas flights in First that once, not so long ago, presented super-fine comestible and libation offerings to sharp end customers.  So much glee to write, in fact, that next time I plan to look inside menus and to comment on the imagination and quality of food and drink. 

Flying was on the menu

March 2, 2021

Being stuck at home this past year has provided ample time to sort and declutter piles of travel files collected over fifty-plus years of flying.

Some stuff was just junk and got recycled. But not all was worthless; well, at least, not to me.

I came across a large cache of memorabilia of international flying starting in the 1980s when I could first afford First Class overseas.  For reasons that perplex my wife—who thinks I’m crazy, anyway—I brought home quite a number of wine and food menus from some of those wonderful flights.

Looking back over those testaments to the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, I realize international First Class service reached a zenith that has never since been equaled or eclipsed.  Even in the immediate post-9/11 era, while U.S. airlines drastically retrenched, most overseas carriers continued to provide superior sharp-end service.  The worldwide decline in front cabin service standards, in my opinion, occurred somewhat later as most First Class cabins were replaced by improved versions of Business Class.

Recently, I began cataloging and admiring the menus I’d brought home over that 20+ year period.  I have over 100, as seen in the picture below.  The ones on the table are just the International FIRST CLASS menus, including two British Airways Concorde flights. The lowly business class menus are on the chair seat.

Maybe, I thought, I should blog about some of those experiences.  After all, I remember a lot of those often spectacular meals.  I especially remember the caviars (Beluga, Sevruga, Osetra, Iranian, and Caspian) which EVEN DELTA was serving in the 90s.

I distinctly remember the fine red wines and the Champagnes, vintages like the Dom Perignon 1980 on Concorde in 1989.

And on a bunch of menus, I made notes to myself about the food and drink.  For example, one famous label French white I described as “Horrible! Like drinking ditch water.”

But my wife’s reaction, and that of a professional journalist friend whose opinion I trust, to my saving the menus was the same:  Why?  Meh!

This is where my expectations and levels of anticipation about flying differ from most folks.  To me, the nuanced experiences of GETTING THERE has always been as important as arriving. The menus deeply thrill me with multiple layers of happy remembrances.  And thus I may soon write about some of those flights and the memories they conjure.

Flying was on the menu

Being stuck at home this past year has provided ample time to sort and declutter piles of travel files collected over fifty-plus years of flying.

Some stuff was just junk and got recycled. But not all was worthless; well, at least, not to me.

I came across a large cache of memorabilia of international flying starting in the 1980s when I could first afford First Class overseas.  For reasons that perplex my wife—who thinks I’m crazy, anyway—I brought home quite a number of wine and food menus from some of those wonderful flights.

Looking back over those testaments to flying in the 80s, 90s, and early 2000s, I realize international First Class service reached a zenith that has never since been equaled or eclipsed.  Even in the immediate post-9/11 era, while U.S. airlines drastically retrenched, most overseas carriers continued to provide superior sharp-end service.  The worldwide decline in front cabin service standards, in my opinion, occurred somewhat later as most First Class cabins were replaced by improved versions of Business Class.

Recently, I began cataloging and admiring the menus I’d brought home over that 20+ year period.  I have over 100, as seen in the picture below.  The ones on the table are just the International FIRST CLASS menus, including two British Airways Concorde flights. The lowly business class menus are on the chair seat.

Maybe, I thought, I should blog about some of those experiences.  After all, I remember a lot of those often spectacular meals.  I especially remember the caviars (called out in various menus as Beluga, Sevruga, Osetra, Iranian, and Caspian) which EVEN DELTA was serving in the 90s.

I distinctly remember the fine red wines and the Champagnes, vintages like the Dom Perignon 1980 on Concorde in 1989.

And on a bunch of menus, I made notes to myself about the food and drink.  For example, one famous label French white I described as “Horrible! Like drinking ditch water.”

But my wife’s reaction, and that of a professional journalist friend whose opinion I trust, to my saving the menus was the same:  “Why?”

This is where my expectations and levels of anticipation about flying differ from most folks.  To me, the nuanced experiences of getting there has always been as important as arriving. The menus deeply thrill me with multiple layers of happy remembrances.  And thus I will soon write about some of those flights and the memories they conjure.

Not in every case, but on some I remember:

  • The order of service,
  • Whether the cutlery was silver or cheap metal,
  • Whether the glassware was crystal or shoddy glass,
  • The FA attitudes (genuine or contrived),
  • Whether they kept my water glass full (and my Champagne),
  • Whether the silverware and crystal was laid out correctly,
  • Whether the napkin was linen or a cheap and disgusting cotton-polyester,
  • The nuanced flavors (or not),
  • Whether what was supposed to be hot was hot and whether cold was cold,
  • The presentations,
  • The quantities,
  • Whether I was asked if I wanted second servings,
  • Whether the cabin crew tried to rush me for their own convenience,
  • The olfactory excitation—especially the wines,
  • The artistry and quality of the dining and wine menus itself (many are indeed things of beauty in and of themselves),
  • The variety and selection of wines – for example, Asiana in the 1990s in First Class offered no less than four luxury cuvee Champagnes to choose from—and that was just the Champagnes on offer, and
  • Whether the FAs offered me an entire bottle of wine or Champagne to take with me on arrival (UA several times gave me an unopened bottle of Dom as I left one of their trans-Pacific 747s).

That’s just off the top of my head.  As I browse the menus, rich memories are stirred of sharp-end experiences, albeit ephemeral—just a few hours of flying that, to me, are as much fun as where I am going. 

Or a disappointment.  I noted the little things in cabin service up front, too: 

  • Whether I was greeted by name,
  • Shown to my seat,
  • Assisted with carryon,
  • Immediately offered a glass of Champagne,
  • My jacket whisked away and hung (and brought back just after touchdown, neatly folded, and sometimes brushed and pressed),
  • Whether the Champagne was a fine one and poured in front of me (a sure sign of pride and care, as opposed to filling a line of glasses in the galley),
  • Whether the Champagne was properly chilled and fizzy, and
  • Whether the purser or chief FA came by to speak (I never cared whether the Captain came by, as he wasn’t invested in cabin service).

All those recollections come pouring back as I look through the menus, some vivid when I read my notes scribbled onto menus about the flights. 

I could always tell if the service was truly spectacular or if the FAs were just acting out parts.  Singapore, for example, with grand marketing about superior service, certainly offered expensive wines and food, but their lovely and polite cabin crews somehow never came across as sincere and confident in what they were doing.  SQ service seemed stiff and rote as opposed to the unaffected charm and poise of senior British Airways flight attendants.

The pinnacle of BA professionalism shone aboard Concorde, which I flew JFK to LHR and back one lucky week in late 1989.  I took along a camcorder and have a lengthy DVD record of the entire trip, which I’ve often thought of posting to YouTube. Passengers were given this binder as a keepsake:

The short three and half hours across the Atlantic was hardly sufficient for a deep dive into Concorde’s wine treasures, though I gave it the old college try.  I remember being gleefully knee-walking drunk by the time I stumbled off at Heathrow and glad not to be working the next day.  Here are two photos of the menus and some of the memorabilia from those flights:

I have scaled back my international front cabin expectations these days to be appropriately low of Business Class, let alone when sitting in mid-cabin Premium Economy or sardine-class Coach.  Armed with such a realistic Zen attitude, I am always shocked and humbled when I find superb and sincere service in, say, lowly coach on Emirates.  No, not the hoity-toity luxuries presented to me in seat 1A of yesteryear, but, hey, no regrets.  I have great memories of the way things were.

Reliving some of those memories, I’ll use the menus to muse about frivolous but fun stuff like which ones were the most artful and which ones were just plain ugly, a discussion of caviars (never a bad one to my palate), thoughts on good and not-so-good wines way up in the sky, and perhaps the correlation of food quality served versus dishes described in print.  And so on.  After all, if I can’t really go anywhere exotic right now, why not enjoy happy reminiscences of past trips?

Grounded, the second year

February 23, 2021

If I’d been able to see into the future 12 months ago that I’d still be mostly grounded now, my spirit may not have survived the year undamaged.  While I’ve enjoyed a few excursions, they’ve been mostly terrestrial. Since arriving home from a South African journey last year (just a few days before the shutdown), I made just one round trip by air (four flights, with connections), and even though that was in First Class, I didn’t feel safe enough to try it again.

A year of no flying, but for that one itinerary.  That’s the least I’ve been in the air since the 1960s.  Hence my enthusiastic travel planning, often chronicled here in my blog (q.v.), so as to be ready to get back on the road when this dark period is over.  Also, my pondering—some might say brooding—over what flying might be when we do get back on the road.

Looking forward: air travel uncertainty

Does a sea change in flying await us when the post-pandemic new normal comes?  No precise analog exists to compare to in the history of commercial aviation which is, after all, only 107 years old and had not matured by 1918’s flu pandemic.    

In my mind, fragmentation, if not downright disintegration, of pre-COVID air travel norms and expectations looms as the world’s airlines pick up the pieces of the disaster that has befallen the industry. In no particular order, here are some of the questions about future air travel rattling around in my head:

  • Will there be fare hikes to make up for the huge Covid-19 losses?  Lately, I’ve been searching flights and fares on every airline in the markets from Raleigh to Minneapolis, to Billings (Montana), to Seattle, and to Johannesburg, among many others, and fares seem to be all over the place.  Not the usual tight bands of prices.
  • Direct or connecting flights?  I read that airlines will be more dependent upon hubs to return to profitability and skew away from the point-to-point trends of 2019.
  • Matching flight supply with demand when fliers return to the airports?  Too few seats to meet demand will of course drive up what I have to pay, especially in city-pair markets with little or no competition.
  • Which carriers will survive?  The conventional wisdom is that if United or American failed (the two weakest big U.S. airlines financially) that a stronger carrier will gobble up the remains and protect those exposed to future bookings bought and paid for.  But I was working in Australia when Ansett Australia imploded and was liquidated in 2002, leaving ticketholders with no recourse.  The collapse correlated to 9/11, a terrible moment for the airline business, and not without comparison to now.
  • To what places will I be able to fly?  Airlines may very well cut back on marginally profitable routes to recoup profits, coupled to travel hurdles to countries slow to vaccinate its people, and there are many places I’d like to go that may no longer be reasonably accessible.
  • Health passports, testing, vaccination, and mask requirements? Speculation fails me in this regard, as so many competing virtual health passports jostle for becoming the standard. For now, I’ll take my hard copy vaccination record when I travel along with plenty of KN95 masks.
  • Airport and security screen protocols?  This is a more existential than concrete worry on my part, but history after upheavals like COVID tells me that traversing airports and TSA barriers isn’t likely to get easier.  Although my status in the Trusted Traveler program may help.
  • Will airline alliances and partnerships still matter?  SkyTeam, oneworld, and Star are only functional when all the partners achieve a threshold of financial stability, reach, and consistent operational and service excellence.  Those calculations will need reaffirming as “normal” comes back.  Over the decades, I’ve benefited from all those inter-airline allegiances in fares, scheduling convenience, and service reliability.  My trust in those elements was earned from years of flying over the globe.  I wonder if I can still be sanguine about the smooth transitions I experienced stepping off one alliance airline’s flight and onto another’s airplane once the pandemic effects abate.
  • What kind of on-board service can I expect in the aftermath due to both cost cutbacks and health concerns? Not that service before the coronavirus was stellar (except up front).  But at least I could buy a snack and a mixed drink or beer to accompany my complimentary water or Pepsi.  These days even the usual First Class beverage service up front is suspended.  If I am sitting in 1A, I’d like to be offered a G&T and a basket of fruit and nuts to choose from even if I turn it down.  Even more true on overseas flights.
  • Will seat comfort become ever more Spartan?  Again, the airlines were already approaching torture in seat design before the virus.  Now that they’re broke (again), I don’t trust them not to “justify” the installation of chairs that reach new levels of torment.  If so, I will fly only when I can afford (or luck into) the front cabin.

Looking way out, I’m no fan of this idea

This recent article speculates that windowless airplanes could be in my future.  I read it in horror.  One of my fundamental joys of flying is looking out from on high. I always try to get a window seat to places that intrigue me: beautiful cities, or ones that are just plain fascinating. Over mountains and oceans and deserts.  The view from my perch way up in the sky is magic, MAGIC!

Okay, center seats on international flights aren’t adjacent to windows, but if I am stuck in one, at least I can SEE through the windows not far away on either side of the fuselage.  I’d like to poll the passengers on the recent United 777 flight out of Denver that experienced a calamitous engine failure whether they would have preferred not being able to observe the flaming, wobbly starboard engine.  It was a scary sight, but I’m betting no one would have wanted to be in the dark of a windowless airplane during those tense moments when the plane returned to land safely at Denver.

And even if you don’t care to look out a window, who wants to risk being bombarded with big-screen advertising for 16 hours on both interior walls of the plane?  Because I know that’s what every airline will do if we let them void our right to see the world from above.

Two trips are better than none

February 18, 2021

A week ago I lamented how travel planning to South Africa this year has become a Sisyphean task. After all, I’ve been relentlessly battling challenges to get back the Kruger National Park since arriving home in March, 2020 just a few days before the Covid shutdown.  By last Friday I was spiritually drained from the fight to book a trip for me and a friend to the Kruger National Park the last two weeks of July.  I finally had to give up on that one. 

I was disappointed for my friend because his work schedule is crazy through 2022, and this was his sole travel window for more than a year.  I sheepishly sought selfish solace in knowing that a November trip to the Kruger with my wife had already been planned, booked, and paid for. 

Not that the November trip had itself been easy to nail down.  It was extraordinarily difficult to make work after flights were canceled by Delta Air Lines twice before, as I documented in a number of earlier posts.

Heck, was it even reasonable, I wondered, to expect the moon and stars to align in putting together a second trip to the Kruger in the same year?  During the chaotic uncertainty of the pandemic?  If so, it certainly wasn’t going to be in July because I had belatedly discovered that scarce Kruger accommodation in that month was due in part to a lengthy South African school holiday period. As starved for outings as we are, South African families are flocking to the Kruger in July.

Then came an unexpected breakthrough: My friend announced that he could go in early August instead.  That news led me to spend large parts of last weekend back at the task of making the new dates work.  I figured we had a shot since kids in South Africa would then be back in class.  Meaning he might get to see African wildlife after all.

Usually, I send an email to a reliable (and free) booking service licensed by South African National Park (SANP) to test Kruger accommodation availability as I try to balance possible Kruger dates against reasonable airfares and schedules to get there. 

But his August date news came last Saturday, and the booking service is only open weekdays.  That meant I’d either have to wait until Monday or attempt booking Kruger bungalows myself on the confusing, slow, and unreliable SANP website.

Trouble was, I couldn’t wait for Monday for an answer because the United Airlines special low intro fares were due to expire on Monday, February 15, after which UA airfares would rise dramatically, putting the cost of the trip out of reach (I’d already confirmed other airline fares were unacceptable). 

For all those reasons, I launched, with trepidation, into booking Kruger camps on the balky, Dr. Seuss-like SANP system.  At least I remembered my client code and sign-in credentials, and soon I was busy relearning the twisted logic of SANP self-booking tricks and traps.

After lining up mostly just the right bungalows among four Kruger “rest camps” (the archaic South African term for the park’s marvelous self-contained villages in the wilderness), I hit the “continue” button to complete the reservation and pay.  Only to watch in consternation as the SANP site returned a fatal error message that I needed to start over from scratch.  SANP’s creaky software had dumped my complex, carefully-constructed itinerary. 

Some choice swear words came next, after which deep breaths, withdrawing from my laptop, and marching outside to rebalance before beginning anew.

In a half hour I was back at it, doggedly reconstructing the itinerary.  I had not been able to copy it out, but I’d scribbled something on paper which I used to build back the overnights in the Kruger Park.  This time the uncooperative system let me proceed to the payments page.  I entered my Amex card data, and pressed “pay now” on screen.  At once, my phone dinged with a reassuring text message letting me know that my Amex card had been charged in the South African Rand equivalent of $1446 and change. 

Looking up from my phone, I stared at the SANP website awaiting confirmation of my $1446 booking…and presently a notice appeared saying my booking had been “automatically canceled.”  My booking had sunk out of sight quicker than the Titanic.  No reason given, but at least a reference number was provided, a tiny bit of flotsam I could cling to in my misery. 

I knew this wasn’t going to be easy to untangle, so I carefully went through the tortured motions required by the ancient SANP programming to find that reference number and ask where my money was. 

Only a general inquiry email was thrown up to write to.  I composed an email detailing what had happened and sent it off into the ether, knowing I wouldn’t hear earlier than Monday because SANP, like the booking service, is closed on weekends. 

Now I had two problems.  Where was my $1446 and the booking I had paid for?  And what was I going to do to get a replacement Kruger booking before the special United fares expired Monday night?  I sure as heck wasn’t going to risk a third try using SANP’s pathetic portal.

Maybe, I thought, my Kruger booking service in South Africa could secure space in time on Monday to purchase the UA airfare before the midnight deadline.  I detailed my SANP self-booking travail in an email and sent that off late Saturday, hoping to get a fast reply by Monday.

Sure enough, before noon on Monday the booking service confirmed Kruger reservations for me and my traveling companion mostly duplicating the dates and accommodation of my failed Saturday itinerary.  The service has access to the SANP system and confirmed that my reservation had inexplicably canceled, but my Amex card had nonetheless been charged.  They recommended waiting to see how SANP would respond to my inquiry.

Meanwhile, I lost no time in accessing the SANP website again, referencing the new Kruger reservation and paying in full—AGAIN—using my Amex card, which totaled a bit over $1500.  This time the system confirmed payment in full with the new reservation intact.

Confident, finally, of secure Kruger bungalows for the two of us, I gave the green light to my friend to buy his United Business Class ticket for our revised dates (early August).  I also purchased mine, except I opted for the cheaper UA Premium Economy fare: $1900 round trip from Raleigh to Johannesburg versus $2900 in Business Class from Newark to Johannesburg. 

Both tickets were issued before the Monday, February 15 midnight expiration.  Whew!  We had made the deadline!

And then United announced it was extending the special fares through March 2.  All that stress and work over the weekend, including the double charging for the Kruger accommodations and the back-and-forth emails to South Africa, could have been avoided had UA let the world know sooner that the Feb 15 drop-dead date was loosey-goosey.

Another airline anomaly: Who knows why United posted a special Business Class fare ($2900) only if originating from Newark, while the special Premium Economy fare ($1900) applies not just from Newark, but also if originating from RDU?  The RDU to Johannesburg Business Class fare connecting to the same Newark flight was thousands higher.

The Business Class bargain EWR/JNB was sufficiently low, though, to attract my friend to it (and me and my wife, too, for our trip in November). Attractive even with the need to buy a separate ticket Raleigh to Newark and back to self-connect to the Jo’burg flights. 

Thus my traveling companion booked a second United ticket for the RDU/EWR/RDU legs, albeit on a coach fare.  Buying that separate ticket, however, put a spotlight on another United Airlines issue, namely that their elite level is an empty suit.

As mentioned in previous posts, the two trips in August and November to Johannesburg will be my first UA flying in a long time.  Formerly a top-tier United loyalist, I turned away after a long series of bad experiences flying United in the 90s. Now I am the lowest of the low, a mere UA “General Member” with no status whatsoever. 

Which means that on my flights Raleigh to Newark and back, I had no elite means to juice an upgrade.  So I simply paid for an upgrade to First Class on those two legs. 

By contrast, my friend traveling with me is a decades-long United super-elite member.  Though I’m a MileagePlus peon by comparison to his millions of miles, UA was more interested in pocketing $69 for my seat in First Class than in bumping my friend up.  So far refusing to fork over more money to the airline, he remains way back in row 17.  Proving that United’s revenue management yield algorithms rule, not elite status.

So, wow!  After mostly living in a cave since March of 2020, I went through travel planning hell to confirm two 2021 trips back to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.  Of course, a previous confirmed trips in February (I would be there now) was canceled by the airlines and moved to May, which was later again canceled and moved to November, so anything might happen.  But I am optimistic and happy today to have these two trip to look forward to. 

Now if only South African National Parks will refund the $1446 for the booking their crummy online rez system canceled.

How to hit a moving travel target

February 10, 2021

I wish I knew the answer to my headline. The Covid crisis continues to generate a blur of perplexing news related to travel.  It’s hard to keep up.  If I was just a spectator, then I might enjoy the roller-coaster ride.  But since I actually presume to go places, it’s exasperating.

I’m often adjusting my travel plans using facts I thought were reliable from yesterday to find that a critical assumption has changed today. Often not in my favor to make travel easier—like Delta not loading its usual range of fares for flights to Johannesburg seven months out.  Sometimes with murky implications—like what kind of test documentation is acceptable for me to return to the USA from South Africa.

Hello United, farewell Delta

Flying Delta Air Lines has been my first choice for decades.  Over five million miles and lifetime Platinum status give me a slight, but distinct, comfort advantage (upgrade opportunities, etc.), even if no help in fare picks compared to anyone else shopping for air. 

Since I often travel to South Africa, Delta works, too, being until recently the sole U.S. carrier offering nonstop service to Johannesburg (ATL/JNB).  Now that South African Airways—the chronically mismanaged “Alitalia of Africa”—has collapsed, Delta faced no competition in the nonstop Johannesburg market. 

That is, until United Airlines decided to launch its own nonstop flights from its Newark fortress hub (EWR/JNB). As a former UA 1K flyer, I abruptly moved my business away from United in the mid-90s after one too many horrible experiences with their mercurial, customer-despising airport gate and cabin staffs.  I vowed not to fly UA again if other alternatives were available, and I pretty much hewed to my prejudice ever since.  All my flying went to Delta and American, and I’ve never looked back.

Until now.  When recent Delta flight cancellations to JNB forced me to move back plans to visit the Kruger National Park from May to November, I assumed Delta would honor the business class Z fare that the airline had twice already changed for similar reasons.  But nope.  Only Delta’s Revenue Management folks understand why the airline has loaded only a narrow range of the highest fares for fall travel to Johannesburg. 

Calling the elite line went nowhere, either.  The closest business class fare to Johannesburg on Delta in November was thousands more, almost twice what I had paid.

That’s when I turned my interest to United, which is offering (through mid-Feb) an introductory business class fare of just $2900 round trip from Newark to Jo’burg.  That’s a lot lower than even Delta’s Z fare—their rock-bottom sharp-end fare.  The icing on the cake is that United is flying a brand new 787-9 fitted with the carrier’s newest (and highly rated for comfort and customer satisfaction) Polaris business cabin to Johannesburg. 

Enticing, but it is still United, and the 1990s bad taste in my mouth lingers.  So I Googled a number of reviews of the new Polaris seats and poured over seatguru.com before making a decision.  Few complaints and lots of raves led me to book the United deal.  Later, I called Delta and got a full refund.  Habit and familiarity made me reluctant to switch, but the dollar factor was a no-brainer.

Electronic “vaccination passport” mirage

Airlines and the industry keep yapping about how wonderful life will be when we have an electronic Covid-19 “vaccination passport” to get us through security and boarding gates. However, confusion reigns, as Joe Brancatelli brilliantly detailed in his (subscriber-only) February 4 column.  The New York Times reported on the promise that it is “coming soon.”  I hope they are right, but I’m skeptical.  Not only, as Joe pointed out, is there no accepted standard, we don’t even have electronic ACTUAL passports yet.  Can we really soon expect an electronic health passport accepted by airlines and at immigration borders worldwide?

Meanwhile, I have my old-fashioned hard-copy Covid vaccine documentation that I keep with my hard-copy passport.

What’s going on in South Africa?

It’s hard to tell.  Conflicting reports emanate from friends in South Africa about life during the pandemic there, and not much in the media, excepting the drumbeat of bad news about the insidious, highly infectious CV-19 variant first identified there. 

According to one source, things are dire:

“Right now, SA is completely shut down. A friend is in Pretoria, and even after a month remains locked up in his house, along with everyone else. Her daughter-in-law is trapped in their vacation home near Cape Town, and people there are not allowed to even go to the beach.

“The SA COVID variant is more rampant than the media reports.

“My friend is going crazy, especially since it is quite difficult to go to stores, and delivery service operations are very limited.”

By contrast, another trusted contact maintains that everyday life is about like here in North Carolina:

“I have been in Cape Town for the last week there is no restriction of movement, beaches are open.  There was a period over December where beaches were closed, but since we moved to level 3 lockdown around mid-Jan, they are open.

“You can go anywhere. Only requirement is to wear a mask in public.

“On the COVID variant it does seem to be more contagious, but we have passed the peak of the second wave recording around 3,000 cases a day, down from 20,000 a day. In terms of getting the vaccine, it will roll out but slowly.

“On freedom, COMPLETE. {Everyone] should be enjoying the beaches, walks, parks, shopping centres etc., just wear a mask.”

I phoned the Kruger National Park to find out about testing (see below for details on that), and the park is indeed open to tourists, making that part of the first report wrong. Yet the rumors persist.

Kruger National Park booked up in July

Trying to book Kruger accommodation in late July for a friend was nearly impossible.  It’s mostly full then—and that’s mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere.  Plenty of pent-up pandemic-related demand, it seems, despite the testing and travel hurdles.  Makes me wonder who is going then.  Likely not Europeans, given how chaotic and closed down Europe is at the moment.  Neither would it be travelers from Australia or New Zealand.  South Africans must certainly be going stir-crazy and want a getaway, so perhaps the park is seeing mostly domestic visitors.

Testing at the Kruger National Park

For some time, I’ve been concerned about how and where to get tested while in the African wilderness of South Africa’s Kruger National Park (for my trip rescheduled—again—in November from May).  

Recently, I got a tip that the Kruger’s doctor office in the largest camp and park headquarters, called Skukuza, was providing test services for travelers.  Using this reference, I called the Kruger doctors’ office at Skukuza earlier this week for details on Covid-19 test capabilities, costs, etc.  Here’s what I learned:

  • Covid-19 PCR testing is done only Monday-Friday at Skukuza during normal office hours (about 8-5).  I did not ask about antigen tests and other types, but the CDC does allow those for return to the USA.
  • For PCR tests, nasal swabs are collected once daily by a lab agent who drives to Skukuza from the town of Nelspruit, which is outside the Kruger National Park.
  • Results are available in 24 hours.
  • Results are emailed to the person tested in the form of a special standard document that complies with airline and country requirements (or that’s what I was assured).
  • Therefore, a test made on a Friday would produce results on Saturday and be good for flying through Monday night per CDC requirements (see below details).
  • The doctors’ office at Skukuza requires an appointment.  The office recommends calling a day or two in advance to set up the appointment.
  • Cost at Skukuza is R650 for the office consultation + R850 for the PCR test (lab fee) = R1500 per person, which at today’s exchange rate of about $1 = R15 is a bit over $100 per person.  This must be paid in cash.  Again, I didn’t ask about other tests, like the antigen type, which are cheaper and faster.
  • It was at first unclear to me when the 72 hour clock starts ticking and when it expires for tests required by the CDC, so I checked their website for clarity. For example, if the clock begins when a nasal swab is taken at noon on a Friday, then would it expire three days later at noon on Monday?
  • The CDC website says I need not worry: “The 3-day period is the 3 days before the flight’s departure. The [CDC] Order uses a 3-day timeframe instead of 72 hours to provide more flexibility to the traveler. By using a 3-day window, test validity does not depend on the time of the flight or the time of day that the test was administered.  For example, if a passenger’s flight is at 1pm on a Friday, the passenger could board with a negative test that was taken any time on the prior Tuesday or after.”
  • Therefore, if tested at any time on a Friday and then boarding a flight through Monday up to midnight, then a negative test result would be accepted.
  • The lab in Nelspruit performs tests 7 days a week, and so it is possible to drive from Skukuza to Nelspruit on the weekend to get tested.  However, it’s two hours to Nelspruit one way, which would pretty much kill the entire day.
  • I didn’t ask, but I believe Kruger is using the Ampeth Lab in Nelspruit.  If so, there is an Ampeth lab in Hazyview, only a one hour drive from Skukuza, but they are not open on weekends.  Only the Nelspruit lab is open 24/7.
  • Two numbers are listed at the “krugerdoctors” URL.  The first is the office number, which only answers during office hours (013.735.5638 local, or 011.27.13.735.5638 when dialing from the USA).  The second is a mobile number to the on-call physician 24/7 for after-hour inquires (060.757.0396 local, or 011.27.60.757.0396 when dialing from the USA).

Mask effectiveness research progresses; supply does not

The CDC now reinforces in this New York Times article published today what I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.  Namely, that tight-fitting surgical masks, and doubling up on masks, is more effective in stopping viral spread.

Since then, I managed to scrounge about 40 KN95 masks and about 10 N95 masks for international air travel.  Such surgical-quality, tight-fitting masks remain hard to find, so I probably won’t use the ones I have stockpiled as the Feb 10 NYT article suggests.  Otherwise, I may not be able to replace them. 

Given the chronic shortage, I have to prioritize travel mask requirements over current best practice.  It’s been over a year since the pandemic hit us, and we still can’t get the masks the CDC recommends.  What happened to American competence?