Category: Uncategorized

Flying in the not-so-new millennium

Astonishingly, we are halfway through 2019, which is the twentieth year of the “new” millennium. My first flight in 1960 was forty years before the twentieth century ended—a sobering reality. Which led me to ponder how flying has changed through my particular (peculiar?) lens in the new century compared to the one I was born in.

So, here are my top-of-mind superficial lists of flying differences from the old century to this one.  I don’t aver these lists are comprehensive, but they do represent flying elements important enough to bubble up for me:

20th CENTURY OLD

Relaxed security – Showing up at the last minute was no problem in the latter decades of the twentieth century.  North Carolina Governor (1961-64) Terry Sanford when he later became President of Duke University was famous for arriving at the Raleigh/Durham airport literally minutes before his plane was to depart and running to board.  I’ve done that myself, though not routinely or by choice.  I sure don’t do it now.

Smoking – Cigarette smoking was allowed in the rear of the plane.  Even cigars were okay on some carriers, such as in the back row of First Class on United 747s. I was on a JFK/LAX 747 flight with David Frost in the late 70s where he smoked Cuban cigars all the way across America.  Could you smell it throughout the plane?  Absolutely, but in those days, nobody much complained about tobacco smoke.

Unlimited checked bags – Who cared then how many steamer trunks you brought and checked?

Gradual use of Jetways at all airports, not just small ones – I remember when jet bridges were a novelty.

Cheap airport parking except at big cities – These days at RDU I am happy to find a parking place in a close-in deck at all.

Weekend deals on rental cars were for years so good that I rented every weekend for pennies.  Avis and Alamo weekend rates were cheaper than driving my own car and parking it at the airport all week.

Propjets on thin routes – I used to fall asleep to the soothing drone of the propellers.

747s and Concorde – I greatly lament their loss: the glamour, romance, glitz, luxe, comfort, speed.

Everyone dressed up to fly – No man would think of boarding a plane unless dressed in a coat and tie, even on weekends.

Caviar and Krug in International First Class – Endless quantities of Beluga and Sevruga Black Sea caviar were served, all washed down with vintage Krug, not that plebian Dom Perignon swill.

Hub flying – All of a sudden, hubs everywhere, with vanishing point-to-point flights.  Hope you like connecting!

LCCs – Low cost carriers proliferated, with fast turns and cheap fares like Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) perfected on the West Coast, but Southwest copied the model and reigns supreme.

Deregulation (1978). Then mergers spelled the demise of so many once-proud airlines: Eastern, TWA, Braniff, Pan American World Airways, Continental. PSA, Piedmont, National, Aloha, Northwest Orient, Ozark, Allegheny, Western, and on and on.

Decline in service, especially schedule reliability and in-flight

Evolution of Business Class paced decline of real international First Class.  For example, “Club Class” started in 1979 on British Airways as a tip of the hat to frequent BA customers by simply not assigning center seats in coach just behind first class and offering free drinks. PanAm’s version was called “Clipper Class” and both soon escalated to a real cabin, better chairs and service.

Pre-frequent flyer loyalty programs – For example, Eastern’s Executive Traveler program (called ET) was by invitation only and offered routine space-available free upgrades to First Class based on who got to the gate soonest.  Several times at RDU in the 1980s I beat out UNC Basketball Coach Dean Smith on the list by simply getting my name on the ET upgrade list ahead of him.  He would glower at me in First as he slouched dejectedly back to coach. Delta’s Flying Colonel program, also by invitation only, offered use of secret airport lounges.  Eastern’s Commuter Desk 800 number, an independent benefit from the ET program, could get me out of any flying trouble anywhere.  The Eastern Commuter Desks were staffed by 2 or 3 rez pros who were authorized by the airline to do anything to get their best customers out of trouble.  It was perhaps the best perk I ever had from any airline.  Eastern Commuter Desk personnel were the airline’s most powerful loyalty tool.  And they were funny and nice, too.

Heyday of Frequent Flyer programs – The mileage bonuses in the programs’ early days of the 1980s were wild!  In 1987-88 on Delta alone, I think I accumulated over a half million frequent flyer miles.  Combined with generous awards that were most always available. Nice memory in contrast to today’s arid frequent flyer world.

Codeshares – an idea that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t (then and now).

Lie-flat sleeper seats – The end game of what began as a coach seat with the adjacent one left empty.  In the 70s and 80s International First Class seats were just big, cushy chairs with a lot of recline.  I remember loving the First Class compartment on Sabena 747s JFK/BRU and on Air New Zealand 747s LAX/NAN long before I ever heard of a sleeper seat.

Flipping CRJ-50s everywhere – I need say no more. The first generation of fifty seaters were agony to fly in.  Though I will give the CRJ the airplane egalitarian award for misery: Every seat was equally uncomfortable.  I still avoid them, though many have, thank God, been retired.

Advent of airline computers to finally take over seat assignments – Remember the stickered seat assignment cards that gate agents had? It made gate agents the literal gatekeepers of comfortable seats, their often fickle choices of where you sat disconnected from loyalty or revenue realities.  If the gate agent didn’t like you, you were getting a center seat in the back, and it didn’t matter how much money you spent, how often you flew, or whether you were pals with the airline’s president.  You were going to be miserable.

 21st CENTURY NEW

9/11 security and anxiety – TSA still seems like the doorway to a police state to me.

Death of frequent flyer programs – We all know this story well.  Woe is us.

It’s an RJ world – Okay, many of the newer models are more comfortable than the first gen of hateful CRJ 50 seaters, but still an uncomfortable ride. And you have to “gate check” carry-on, too.  Bummer.

The tyranny of tiered elite loyalty programs based on revenue has killed free upgrades for most of us.  I’ve watched many an Executive Platinum on American turn away in shame and disappointment from the monitors announcing upgrades.  As a less-than-zero Lifetime Gold in the AAdvantage program, my 36 banked 500-mile upgrades mock my foolishness for buying and earning awards that can never be used.

Paying for seat assignments if you are not elite on the major airlines, and paying for them anyway on some airlines.

Paying through the nose for checked bags unless you are an elite, one of the biggest airline scams of the modern era.

Segmentation of fare bases – Basic economy, main cabin, slightly better coach with 3 inches of extra seat pitch, first class.  What a racket!  Those poor basic economy folks are treated like scum: no advance seats, pay for bags, board last and sit in the tail.  I’m surprised airlines don’t charge them to use the lavatories.

As competition has shrunk, huge fare differentials at both hub and little cities – Such as Fargo, Billings, Greenville (SC), Minneapolis, Newark.  It’s sometimes cheaper to fly to a distant overseas city than to Houston Intercontinental.

The dehumanization of comfort in coach as row spacing (pitch) and seat width declines evermore.

The Premium Economy phenomenon – On overseas legs, the slow maturation of Premium Economy becomes the new Business Class while Business has largely replaced International First.

Spiraling, no-sense airfares, especially in international Business (examples: Delta One to Johannesburg–$10.518 versus $1054 in Main Cabin; Cathay Pacific “sale” price in PE to Hong Kong-$2700–that’s no bargain).

Window shades down from gate to gate – This trend was started by the airlines several years ago routinely asking passengers on arrival to close the shades to keep the interior from overheating in the summer when the A/C wasn’t on between flights.  Unfortunately, the practice has accelerated as it paralleled the tendency of a lot of passengers to bury their noses in their devices: smartphones, tablet, laptops.  I’ve noticed many do not even bother to look out the window for takeoff and landing now.  Their focus is the tiny screen.  Jaded, they seem to take for granted the marvel of flying, as if it was a transit bus to and from work.  I have long preferred aisle seats so I can get up and down easily, but these days I often ask for a window so that I can control the shade.  I still like to watch the skies.

Sure, there’s more—a lot more.  But that’s a good start.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Those wretched “saddle” seats that airlines have been toying with for a decade already, an idea that just won’t die. I’ve adjust to a lot of discomfort flying over the last 60 years, but this is the limit for me.  Since I can no longer afford to routinely fly international business class, I am grateful to escape coach in Premium Economy whenever possible.

In Sweden, some activist teens condemn flying for its impact on climate change.  Time will tell if this is an anomaly or a trend.  An existential dilemma for our time.  Perhaps the teens would compromise and ride in an airline saddle seat if doing so cut their individual carbon emission share by more than half.  Just a thought.

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Why I fly

I flew on business for decades. As a management consultant for forty years, I was on planes to somewhere and back every week. It was a necessity, part of the bargain when I committed myself to that profession. I knew it when I started.

Unlike some, however, I viewed the constant travel by air as bonus more than onus. Why? Because I love flying, and I love going places.

Not because of the frequent flyer miles. When I started in the 70s, frequent flyer programs hadn’t yet been invented. I just loved flying and experiencing places other than home then. I still do.

Why do I so love to travel, so enjoy flying? I’ve thought about that question all my life.

When I was young, I was passionate about trains. Something about the romance of where they came from and where they were going, and the marvel of the rail network. Steel rails mysteriously connected everything to where I stood. I spent a lot of time at train stations in awe of trains and railroads from the time I was a babe in arms.

At age 12 I was going alone by train from Raleigh to New York and back without my parents’ knowledge, tickets paid for with my own money earned from my paper route. I planned my own three-week trip across the country entirely by train in 1963 when I was fifteen, and in 1964 I took that journey without parents or adults in tow.

Concurrently, I discovered airplanes. As a kid, I convinced my very patient parents to take me many times to the Raleigh/Durham Airport. I was entranced by the majestic four-engine Eastern Airlines Lockheed Constellations that came and went at RDU in the 1950s. I could identify an original Connie (round windows) versus a Super G (square windows) by the time I was nine or ten. And I knew the difference between a DC-6 and a DC-7, too.

My first flights came at age 12 in 1960 on a Piedmont DC-3 and a Piedmont Fairchild F27 propjet—modern for the time.

But flying was expensive, and I had to pay for college and grad school. My first overseas trip—to Europe on a Sabena Belgian World Airways 707—had to wait until I saved enough money in 1973. I was already 25 and itching to go abroad. I’ve been making up for lost time ever since. I’ve flown mil-lions of miles on more airlines than I can remember to every continent but Antarctica and so many times around the world that I lost count.

But, again, why? Why did I do it, and why do I do it still, just as enthusiastically now as on that first magic DC-3 flight in 1960?

American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay famously wrote in “Travel”:

“My heart is warm with the friends I make, And better friends I’ll not be knowing,
Yet there isn’t a train I wouldn’t take, No matter where it’s going.”

The last line in that poem riveted me when I first read it in high school. That was exactly how I felt.

Why does her poem still excite me to get going? Maybe it’s partly due to another Millay quote:

“The longest absence is less perilous to love than the terrible trials of incessant proximity.”

Do I become bored and stale staying always in one place? Maybe. Even probably, but that’s still not my only motivation to fly.

Partly, it is because I love flying itself. Soaring up into the sky temporarily defeats the tyranny of gravity and, at the same time, makes me appreciate the sheer loveliness and grandeur of the earth. Things on the surface look better from way high up in the air, excepting the odd hideous zinc smelter.

Another reason: I love discovering and exploring new places and people, of learning how people live and trying to understand the prism through which they experience their world. Making new friends in other places, some from there, some travelers like myself from different faraway places, has always been richly gratifying. Some of those friendships have lasted a lifetime. Experiences in distant lands have ofttimes been unlike any I would have had at home. How can we understand our own existence if we do not grasp the principles and values by which others measure theirs?

Too, I still jump on planes with zeal because certain places call me back again and again, some due to fond memories (Italy; Germany), others for my love of the natural world (Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness of Montana; South Africa’s Kruger National Park; the canyons, mesas, mountains, and vistas of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado), and some to reaffirm friendships.

Whether picturesque or grungy, I also love port cities (e.g., New York, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cape Town, San Francisco, Rio, Seattle, Los Angeles).

Furthermore, and God help me for confessing it, I have always loved hanging around airports and train stations. They fascinate me, even the ugliest. I know that’s uncommon, but places that exist solely so people can congregate to travel are exciting to me.

Another factor is that I love airplanes themselves, from the wretched original 50-seat Canadair RJ to the 100-seat Anglo-French Concorde to the magnificent Boeing 747 (all models) to the Airbus A380. Planes are enchanted things that routinely defy gravity to speed us great distances. When I see an airplane landing or taking off from the ground, I am always envious that I’m not on board.

To be candid, I must acknowledge (and as many posts on this blog confirm) that I simultaneously love and loathe the varied airline service offerings. But even my rants against the worst of them cannot keep me away. I love to hate the in-flight cabin experiences I sometimes have, but I still love flying.

Lastly, going away from the familiar and coming back engenders renewed gratefulness for home. At least it does for me. Leaving and returning fosters appreciation for the monotony of daily life because flying to places far away are rarely dull, are not routine, and hardly humdrum. My travels by air, spaced at intervals, keep me balanced. Travel keeps me from going stark raving mad, bringing to mind another Edna St. Vincent Millay quote:

“It’s not true that life is one damn thing after another; it’s one damn thing over and over.”

We hear from childhood that life is short. What we don’t learn until adulthood is that it goes by faster and faster with each passing year. I always yearned to experience life fullest, to see every possible manifestation of life on this dazzling blue orb. As I move into my seventy-second year, I am grateful that airplanes have made my dreams come true.

Elusive Delta premium economy fare to Johannesburg

An old friend I’ve known since Kindergarten wants to join me in early 2020 on my next jaunt to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.  My friend, not a frequent flyer, trusted me to find that perfect balance of comfort, cost, and convenience that will make the long trip bearable to both our bodies and our wallets. I found it, too, in Delta’s new premium economy on the carrier’s nonstop Atlanta-Johannesburg flight (DL200/201), albeit just barely.

Knowing after 28 years of ferreting out bargains to South Africa that it’s never too early to look at options from Raleigh/Durham to Johannesburg and then on to the little Skukuza airport in the Kruger Park, I began poking around on websites scarcely within the 330-day window for advance booking. Because Delta’s nonstop from Atlanta to Jo’burg is a convenient way to get there (just two flights to get to JNB), I looked at delta.com among other itinerary and airline possibilities.

As a baseline, I began by checking the old way to getting to South Africa: flying through Europe.  The fares on some carriers RDU/JNB were lower than $1400, but the all-day European layovers were brutal, and it also killed another day that we might be having fun in the Kruger.

I also tested Gulf carriers, including Qatar Air using oneworld partner fares with AA from Raleigh to Johannesburg, a routing I have done in business class, but never in coach.  I found that Qatar economy fares were not big bargains, and the total travel times were not better than the European-stopover routings.  Ditto for Emirates, which partners with Jet Blue.

South African Airways had a decent schedule and competitive coach fares with its partner, United, RDU to Dulles, then IAD to JNB to SZK (Skukuza, the jewel of an airport in the Kruger), but I tend to shy away from flying economy on airlines on which I hold zero elite status.

Still, SAA fares were comparable to what I subsequently found on Delta in Main Cabin; that is, about $1500 to JNB, or about $1750 round trip all the way to Skukuza. The SAA schedule into Johannesburg also allowed a same-day morning connection to Skukuza, another advantage over Delta and other carriers.  That was mighty tempting.

On Delta, I initially checked fares for late January outbound, returning about 12 days after. Delta.com was showing only Main Cabin, Comfort+, and Delta One classes for January departures. Fares in Main Cabin were reasonable at around $1500 RDU/JNB.  With no competition, South African Airways consistently charges about $300 round trip JNB/SZK, so the total would therefore have been $1800 or so to get to Skukuza and home again.

(By the way, I always check business class fares, too, but as nearly $11,000 round trip RDU/JNB on the dates I needed, booking Delta One was a nonstarter.)

Now I admit without shame that flying in a cramped Delta coach seat to Africa is not fun.  It is a challenge of endurance for 16 hours.  Though hellish, I have done it, and I can do it again.

However, I was counting on my Lifetime Platinum status to grant me and a companion (my friend) complimentary Comfort+ upgrades on DL200/201 ATL/JNB/ATL.  Flying Comfort+ doesn’t make the economy seats any wider, but at least there is 3 inches more between rows, and I have a strategy for enduring that long flight in Comfort+.

The prospect of those extra 3 inches in Comfort+ tilted me a bit to Delta from South African Airways, though SAA’s same-day morning connection at JNB to Skukuza made the comparison with SAA a hard choice.

Why not premium economy? Because I knew that the 777-100LR aircraft used on the route had not been updated with Delta’s “Premium Select” premium economy product, and somewhere I had read that the Johannesburg planes would be among the last to get the interior cabins refreshed.  DL200/201 are money spinners as presently configured. After all, Delta is the sole American carrier with a nonstop to Johannesburg; only South African Airways flies competing nonstops from the USA.

But then my friend alerted me to his preference to leave a month later, departing RDU in late February and returning in mid-March.  Having pretty much settled on a Delta itinerary, I waited a few days so that our return date in March was within the 330-day maximum for advance booking,

To my surprise, the outbound and return dates on delta.com showed a fourth class of service available on DL200/201 ATL/JNB: Premium Select.  Fares in premium economy were $2000 RDU/JNB, which included Comfort+ on the RDU/ATL legs.  A $500 round trip difference struck me as about right for the extra difference in comfort and personal space.

Okay, Delta’s premium economy service is lackluster compared to, say, Cathay Pacific, but the seats are undeniably far better than coach (see my post on Delta’s Premium Select), and so I grabbed two seats for me and my traveling buddy at that fare.

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Delta Premium Select (premium economy) seats on an A350 DTW/PEK

Out of curiosity, I checked the next day for the same itinerary, and the Premium Select fare had gone up to $2500.  The fare had risen $500 literally overnight.

The RDU/JNB premium economy fare has been $2500 ever since for those dates. I’ve checked delta.com from January to April, 2020, and the Premium Select fare is always $2500.

What happened?  Who knows?  Perhaps I came across the one day in eternity when Delta’s new premium economy fares were loaded into the system at a relative bargain price for the nonstop to Johannesburg, after which the gods of Delta revenue management decided to goose the fare $500.

When I checked other origin cities, such as New Orleans, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Washington, Premium Select to JNB was (and is) priced at $2500 or a few bucks more. Only NYC/JNB through ATL on the nonstop is slightly higher at $2700, and, oddly, MIA/JNB through ATL is $2272 in PE. Why Miami to Johannesburg in premium economy is cheaper by $230 than flying from Raleigh is another mystery.

Talk about elusive! I’m fortunate, of course, to have snapped up a fare on the single day it would be $500 below the price of forever-after, but I am perplexed that the lower, reasonable fare vanished in 24 hours.  The $2000 fare I purchased is a $500 difference over Main Cabin, a fair value cost, in my opinion.

At $2500, though, the current premium economy fare is almost $1000 over Main Cabin, which is not good value for the product. I wouldn’t have paid that much and so would have chosen either South African Airways’ attractive same-day morning connection at Johannesburg to Skukuza or Delta in Comfort+ with a one-night layover in Johannesburg before going on to Skukuza. Chances are, I would have chosen convenience over comfort to go with SAA, with greedy Delta the loser.

Rome’s Hotel Canada is an elegant joy

Rome’s 19th century Hotel Canada exudes my kind of quiet, understated elegance, comfort, and tranquility. More like a boutique property, it has just 72 rooms, all beautifully appointed and maintained with period furnishings. The hotel occupies part of an 1870 palazzo in Rome’s historic district. The place has the solid feeling of permanence and grace that I associate with the finest old English hotels.

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The discreet front entrance of Rome’s Hotel Canada respects the posh residential neighborhood.

These pictures show off my room, the view from my terrace, and the public areas on the ground floor, all confirming that the Hotel Canada in Rome ain’t a Marriott in Missoula!

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Even the front desk at Hotel Canada is elegant.
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The wonderful vintage birdcage elevator at Hotel Canada.

Hotel Canada is a Best Western affiliate, but it’s Roman to the core. I love it for its beauty, comfort, and lack of pretension. Also because it is unique, not a chain hotel, despite being affiliated with one.

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My room at Rome;’s Hotel Canada
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My room and the terrace at Hotel Canada.
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Hotel Canada interior rooms look down from the terraces onto expensive Roman flats.

The dining room has a huge breakfast spread with every imaginable morning food item. It was included in my rate, as well as complimentary afternoon drinks and snacks in the equally elegant bar, all of which I enjoyed reaching on the ground floor via the marvelous, ancient birdcage elevator.

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The elegant bathroom in my Hotel Canada room.
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The hand-painted ceiling in my beautifully appointed and well-kept room.

I never tired of the old birdcage elevator, a prism through which I flash on an earlier time in my life. In 1975-76, when I lived in Munich and worked all over the Continent, my company maintained a flat in Brussels in an ancient building with a similar birdcage elevator. I was very happy in that job (Manager of European Operations), a magic period, and I was regularly in temporary residence in that beautiful old Brussels apartment building. I used it as a base for our busy student charter flight operation in and out of Brussels.

Somehow I associated the Hotel Canada’s slow but reliable birdcage lift with the potpourri of memories I have of that place and era: bitter cold early mornings at the gritty Brussels train station open air bars watching Belgium businessmen with leathery faces in heavy wool topcoats chain-smoking harsh Gauloises cigarettes while gulping down multiple shots of cheap brandy on their way to work, the endless fields of brilliant red poppies blooming along the tracks of the train to the Brussels airport, the breathtaking beauty of the Grand-Place de Bruxelles with its medieval guild halls and the exquisite escargot served in the grand plaza’s outdoor cafes.

And many more fond memories. All reminding me why I like to travel in the first place.

But I digress. Why is a Roman hotel called “Canada,” for goodness sake? For a fascinating answer, see here.

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The breakfast buffet area at Hotel Canada.  The huge breakfast was included in my room rate.
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Just part of the gorgeous lobby and public areas, including a bar.

Getting there is easy from Roma Termini (main train station). I took a cab to the hotel for €6. I had planned to walk, as the hotel is easily doable on foot from the station, but I had a nasty fall on my right knee in a dark passageway a couple of days earlier at the Villa il Poggiale in San Casciano (near Florence), so I was temporarily limping.

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4th floor map showing the room layouts.

No one on either a business or a leisure trip will be disappointed in this hotel. What a bargain at $120/night including a huge breakfast buffet!

I miss Rome’s marvelous Hotel Canada. I don’t often say that about a hotel.

Unique Peruvian hotels

On a recent trip to Peru with our daughter over Spring Break, our arrangements were bundled in order to assure optimal entrance times and a guide at Machu Picchu.  My job was limited to making air reservations to Lima and return, which I wrote about last week.

The bundling included hotel reservations in Lima, Cusco, and Aguas Calientes (at the base of Machu Picchu). I had no oversight, or even visibility, until we walked into each property. I had to forget the consistency of a Sheraton; every Peruvian hotel had its own character. Here are my real-time notes:

TAMBO PERU 2 HOTEL, LIMA

Our Lima Airport airport-to-hotel transfer rep met us just outside immigration as planned. Forty-five minutes after leaving the airport, we arrived at our hotel in Lima’s tony Miraflores neighborhood near the Pacific Ocean. The drive was tortuous, but fascinating, through the thriving beat of late Friday night traffic.

I guess the fellow who made the hotel arrangements for us in Lima inadvertently set my expectations at a high level. Because our hotel, the Tambo Peru 2 (of three in Lima), was a letdown. I’m pretty sure a photo of this place appears in the dictionary under the entry “charmless”. Nothing about the physical property is endearing, though the staff is friendly and helpful.

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That said, the Tambo Peru 2 is perfectly safe, clean, and serviceable. It just isn’t the level of hotel that I thought we paid for.

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View from our sole room window at the Tambo

The following morning, after a forgettable breakfast at the hotel (included), we had a taxi drop us in downtown (old town) Lima at the Plaza San Martin. The elegant old Gran Hotel Bolivar was our first stop.

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Main lobby at the Gran Hotel Bolivar

Not the fine hotel it once was, but still a beautiful building in the grand early 20th century colonial style. Its faded glory certainly eclipsed that of the Tambo 2 Hotel. .

Back at our hotel later that day, we walked around the Miraflores streets nearby. I was surprised to spot the Mercure Hotel Lima just around the corner.  After our fine experience at the Mercure in Vienna  in January, I was wishing we had been booked there. The Tambo was clean and safe, but nothing extra whatsoever.

TERRA ANDINA HOTE, CUSCO

The Terra Andina is a grand old building, formerly a large private residence, now converted to a hotel. It’s conveniently located close to Plaza San Pedro, the big local market. Plaza San Francisco and Plaza de Armas (the main square) are with reasonable walking distance.

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The hotel is fine, but with the sort of idiosyncrasies that tend to bedevil non-chain properties. Like ’em or hate “em, the Hiltons and Marriotts of the world have standardized the things that ensure our comfort. Our impressive modern-looking shower in the Terra Andina, for instance, dribbled only a pathetic stream of tepid water and never got hot. The mattresses were uncomfortable thick foam that got terribly hot in the night, as did the too-thick foam pillows. The bedside lights were inadequate for reading. The room safe wasn’t bolted down and could have easily been carted away by a thief.

Also, the buffet breakfast didn’t impress me. My wife and daughter found it perfectly acceptable, however, so what do I know?

I have long ago come to take such basic creature comforts for granted in hotels. Even Days Inn does a better job in delivering those basics than the Terra Andina. But, of course, the Andina makes up in unique charm what it lacks in the details.

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Terra Andina covered courtyard

HANAQPACHA INN HOTEL, AGUAS CALIENTES

We enjoyed a super deluxe hotel in Aguas Calientes…well, okay, a slight exaggeration. Maybe even an outright lie.

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View from our window at the Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel

At least we have a view now. The hotel initially assigned us a room in the back of the building with no windows at all and only a single dim bulb working. The only other room light was broken. It resembled a forgotten dank storeroom more than a hotel bedroom. I politely but firmly explained our unwillingness to accept that accommodation, resulting in being switched to one of their best rooms on the front. This one has stunning views , such as of the hotplate on the table in the one-room flat across the alley, and at no extra cost!

 

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That is the Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel entrance on the right just beyond the smiling man

Deluxe? Not. All kidding aside, though, this is exactly the kind of modest, but clean and safe hotel that my wife and I would have researched and selected for ourselves. The reason I’m grousing is that for this trip, to make it special for our daughter, we opted to let a tour operator arrange everything, and, just like my disappointment in the Lima hotel, we were led to believe this property was much better than it is. It’s a matter of setting expectations.

I looked up the property. The Hanaqpacha Inn Hotel (perhaps management felt two descriptors would attract double the custom), for several dates, including this week (Catholic Holy Week, which is high season). Rooms for two with breakfast were consistently $39/night, for three (2 adults and 1 child), $49 nightly including breakfast. I’m pretty sure a tour operator would get a discount below those public rates.

The Hanqpacha is fine and dandy at those price levels. In addition to breakfast of some sort, the wifi works well, and the amazing shower (lots of hot water and torrential water pressure) almost redeems the dismal location. The staff is super-nice, too, and, to repeat two important base elements of any hotel, it is safe and clean. I just feel we aren’t getting what we paid the tour operator for.

BACK AT TERRA ANDINA, CUSCO

Not sure what we did to deserve this nice suite (208) at the Terra Andina hotel here in Cusco, but it sure was a great surprise to be already checked into it last night when arrived exhausted from the day of climbing at Machu Picchu and then the train and van rides.

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Photos don’t do the 2-room suite and luxury bathroom (with huge tub and separate glass shower) justice. Still has the same uncomfortable foam mattresses, but the hot water works well in this room, and with plenty of pressure.

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Maybe it was the nice tip I left the staff here before we departed for Aguas Calientes. I think I reported how great the hotel staff is here, nice enough to overcome my nits and make me want to return. So I rewarded them.

IN SUM

All three hotels in Peru were fine because they were safe and clean.  As I said about the property in Aguas Calientes, all three were exactly what my wife and I might have selected for ourselves, which is how we ordinarily plan our trips (that is, we arrange most everything). We just didn’t get what we paid for, a different issue.  The hotels were fine for holiday travel, but probably not for most business travelers. Each property was a total surprise, a nice contrast from the predictable monotony of major chain hotels,

Never again Latam to Peru

Our daughter is a high school sophomore, and she wanted to see Peru over Spring Break: Lima, Cusco, and Machu Picchu. My wife and I agreed, and I chose Latam Airlines for our air carrier. Now that it’s over, I regret that decision and would not fly Latam again in coach.

Looking at air travel alternatives between Raleigh (RDU airport) and Lima as I planned our trip, I quickly discovered that flying Delta or American on actual DL or AA flights was a good deal more expensive (by $200 or more per person) compared to a code share fare RDU/LIM using oneworld partner Latam Airlines.

No coach fare to Peru was cheap, but okay, we were going over Holy Week (Easter) to a predominately Catholic country.  The Latam routing was RDU/MIA/LIM, with the Miami connection flight legs on American Airlines going and returning.

Latam looked doable, with a short five and a half hour flight Miami to Lima that landed us in Peru at 10:15 PM. I had never flown on Latam and didn’t know what to expect, but heck, I thought, five hours is a piece of cake compared to 19 hours nonstop Newark to Singapore. So I booked the Latam code share to save us hundreds of dollars.

Both Latam flights were 767 airplanes, which seatguru.com reported were 32” pitch and 18” width in economy. Minimal comfort, but better than the other Latam aircraft configurations with seat width a confining 17.3”. Even so, I decided we needed seats as far forward as possible.

When I contacted the airline, I was told that seat assignments right behind business class cost extra, even though those chairs are no different from the endless rows of sardine class seats behind them.  I eventually agreed to pony up over a hundred bucks (altogether) for the three of us to get seats in the first three rows behind business. I thought seats there would give us a leg up on boarding and finding overhead space for our bags (we never check luggage), and we would also be able to deplane sooner on arrival.  Turned out I was half right: We did get off ahead of most coach passengers.

I also contacted American and obtained seat assignments on the domestic connection flights (RDU/MIA/RDU) right behind first class.  As a Lifetime AAdvantage Gold Million Miler, I was not charged for those seat assignments.

RDU/MIA

When the day arrived, our first flight was a new 737-800 (no, not a MAX!), Once seated, first thing I noticed was that it was not equipped with screens. Instead, AA now expects that we will bring our own smartphone or tablet and use their wifi or our downloaded content to watch at your own expense, not the airline’s.  The two pictures below are of the nifty little seatback cradles American now provides to hold our devices.

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Personally, I think it’s a cheap cop-out to eliminate the screens, but I seem to be in the minority, as usual these days.

CONNECTING IN MIAMI FROM AMERICAN TO LATAM

On arrival at the sprawling AA complex at Miami, we had very little connection time. An American gate agent said that Latam left from the distant H concourse. Further, we were required, she said, to leave security, hoof it way down to that concourse, and then re-enter security.

A strike against Latam, I thought.  And American for not caring to make oneworld connections easy at a very busy international airport.

We took off as fast as we could, with less than an hour to connect.

It was indeed a long hike to the Latam H concourse. On arrival to the security screen, I realized that Latam does not participate in the TSA Pre-Check program as does AA.  We therefore had to take off our shoes and belts and remove liquids and so on from our bags, which took some time since we had not anticipated that requirement by making the items easy to reach.

One more black mark against Latam.

Finally clear, we rush down to the gate, where boarding was just commencing. There I noticed that Latam has installed columns with row number groups and asked passengers to line up behind the one that corresponded to their seat assignments.  We dutifully queued at the boarding stanchion that included our row, as shown below.

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Business Class and Latam elite passengers were first to board, naturally. Then rows were called by stanchion starting at the rear of the plane.  That meant we were going to board dead last despite the extra money I had spent on the seat assignments.

Latam was accumulating mental black marks faster than I could keep track of them.

I grumbled to my wife that I hoped the onboard flight attendants were monitoring the overhead bins to make sure that those over our most forward coach rows were remaining open for us when we were finally called.

On entering the aircraft, I was relieved to find enough—though barely sufficient—overhead bin space for us to stow our bags.  Those passengers who had preceded us had indeed taken much of the bins in the forward cabin with, apparently, no complaint from the cabin staff monitoring the boarding process.

Another strike against Latam.

Though we were among the last folks to find our seats, the plane sat at the gate for another half hour with no explanation.  And no air conditioning.  It was Miami in April, and hot.  The 767 cabin soon began to roast, with nary a whiff of air, let alone cool air, coming from the overhead vents.

We had not even left the gate, and already I was starting to loathe Latam Airlines.

MIAMI/LIMA

The Latam Airlines flight experience in coach from Miami to Lima was predictably claustrophobic. The guy in front of my seat reclined into my space, leaving me insufficient room even to hold up my hardback book to read. Was it really 32″ of pitch?  Didn’t feel like it.

To calm myself, I made feeble attempts at zen meditation and dreamed of the relative luxury and roominess of the previous week’s business class flight from Rome to JFK on Delta.

My meal of cold salmon and salad with yogurt dressing was tasty, to my happy surprise, and the young flight attendants handing out the prepackaged food trays were all smiles and enthusiasm. Alcoholic beverage service in coach was limited to lukewarm beer, cheap white wine, and really bad red wine, so I didn’t get the ice-cold Pisco Sour I had yearned for while enduring the sweltering sauna at the gate (Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru).

I’ve rarely been so happy to leave an airplane as when we reached Lima at 10:15 PM. The uncomfortable ride in Latam’s coach cabin did not make me want to book the airline again.

Nor did the truly ancient, museum-ready seatback screens. Mine had continuous video and audio dropouts throughout the flight and was depressingly dim even at the highest brightness setting. I dreaded the idea of the return flight, but put it out of my mind to enjoy Peru, which we did, very much.

LIMA AIRPORT ON LEAVING PERU

Checked in to our Latam flight the night before online, a very tedious process requiring me to re-enter all our birth dates and passport numbers and our home address, even though I had entered all that online the previous week when we flew to Peru. Thank goodness for a strong wifi signal at our hotel, but yet another strike against Latam.

Still had to stop by the Latam counter to pick up our boarding passes. After a long wait while the nice counter agent repeatedly tried, Latam’s computer system was unable to print our AA boarding passes Miami to Raleigh. This despite Latam being a oneworld partner with AA and the tickets being Latam/AA code share.

First time that’s ever happened to me. I knew that would mean having to exit security at Miami, find the AA ticket counter, have our MIA/RDU boarding passes issued, and then re-enter security. Very inconvenient and avoidable. Another Latam demerit.

Lima Airport was not a terrible experience going through the various security and immigration screens. Faster than most International airports, really.

Stopped by the Hanaq VIP lounge—access thanks to my Priority Pass card—adjacent to gate 17. I’ve been to a lot of Priority Pass lounges worldwide, and they are all unique. Some are naturally better than others.

The Hanaq VIP lounge was exceptionally good (see photos below), and I highly recommend it. It is gigantic (3 levels), modern, sparkling clean, has a bar as well as at least three different eating areas (all well-stocked with a good variety of tasty hot and cold food), and shower rooms adjoin the clean and spacious lavatories. Plenty of plugs for recharging phones, tablets, and laptops, too.

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One cautionary note: We apparently arrived just before a rush. Despite its enormous size, the Hanaq VIP had a long queue waiting to get in as we departed, and there was no place to sit anywhere.

LIMA/MIAMI

Latam was at least consistent: Not much worked on the plane, and the trip was uncomfortable. Just like flying to Lima the previous week.

No A/C on board the airplane while at gate or in the air. No idea why not, and requests to make it cooler yielded no joy until three hours into the flight.

No seat controls worked for lights or to call flight attendants or to control video in the front coach cabin of the 767-300 airplane. When I asked the unsmiling flight crew, they just shrugged, mumbled “not work”, and moved on. So much for bilingual training, I guess.

Indifferent service throughout by a crew that looked like they hated their work and could hardly wait for the flight to end. Well, I could empathize.

Unlike the cold salmon plate going to Peru, the box lunch type meal was not good.

Just as on our outbound flight, the red wine was undrinkable, and my flimsy plastic cup only half filled.  Turned out that the low pour was a good thing, as I didn’t finish even that much. I should have known better than to order it, but hope springs eternal.

FAs hesitated to give us even a second glass of water. I had to beg, and again only received a half glass.

No toilet paper in the forward starboard coach lav, and no water from faucet. In both regards, very much like most Peruvian public toilets, but I didn’t expect that on an airplane.

On the positive side, the flight was on time.

Overall, I would give Latam a “D+” grade simply because we made it safely both ways and on time. That said, I will try hard to avoid booking the airline ever again in coach.

MIAMI/RALEIGH

American Airlines dropped my carefully pre-selected seat assignments (made seven months in advance) in the forward part of coach. The Miami elite counter agent could not explain why, though she hunted the history in the computer record and saw that our mighty good seats had once existed but had vanished. Her forensic analysis revealed only that we would have to plead for seats at the gate.  She gave me seat request cards to get us through security. At least the seat requests said “TSA Pre” so we could zip through.

I chatted up the gate agent and briefed her on our quandary.  She smiled and gave us three seats together in Main Cabin Extra. The seats were one row behind what I had originally selected many months before the AA system dumped them, but I thanked her graciously and did not say what I was thinking about the failure of AA and the needless anxiety and frustration.

We touched down in Raleigh just before midnight.

IN SUMMARY

A sample of one airline (Latam) is not enough to draw definitive conclusions. I can only say that stories from consulting colleagues who have recently flown to South America confirm that the level of service from Latin American carriers in general, Latam included, is inferior to that of Delta and American (I do not know of United’s rep to S.A). I would definitely not book Latam again except in Business.

Delta 767s in Delta One

Delta Air Lines puts just four seats across (1-2-1) in its international business cabin on the narrowest of widebodies, the 767 airplane, but it still feels tight. I thought all those Delta 767s were about the same, but recently I flew in Delta One on two of Delta’s 767 models, the 300 and the 400, and I was surprised to discern a comfort difference.

Delta Air Lines calls its international business class cabin “Delta One” to infer it is First Class, the luxurious way we used to fly going overseas.  Of course Delta One is not international First Class. That level of service is mostly dead now, and certainly gone from Delta, which only half-heartedly offered it when they began flying across the ponds that separate the continents.

Nonetheless, Delta One is quite comfortable on most aircraft equipped with the biz class chairs and service, so maybe I grouse too much.  I certainly love flying Delta One over any coach option.  My impressions of flying on two Delta 767 aircraft equipped with international cabins follows.

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Delta 767-300ER Delta One cabin showing staggered seats

767-300ER – In the Delta One cabin, I selected 1A. Seats are staggered on all Delta 767 aircraft to make them fit in what some analysts call a herringbone pattern.  Thus only the odd-numbered rows have windows directly adjacent to the windows on the port and starboard sides.  Even-numbered row seats are spaced about an arm’s length away from the windows.

The interior of the plane I flew was tired and wearing out. IFE (in-flight entertainment) system appeared to be an early generation with tiny screen and poor resolution. Looked like an old TV monitor. Blurry. How quickly I have been spoiled by the very large, razor-sharp, high-def LCD screens in more modern cabins.

The standard Delta One headphones are not noise-canceling on any Delta flight, but I always take my superb Bose headphones on long flights. I turned the standard issue headphones back to the flight attendants as soon as I boarded.

Cheap “Champagne” was barely chilled and had a repulsive flavor like I imagine hair tonic would taste. Plenty of legroom, but the seat was not comfortable: It was too narrow. SeatGuru.com says mine seat was 21” wide.  Maybe so, but it felt cramped.

The LA-based crew were all very nice and efficient. All smiles. They made it a good flight even if on a tired airplane that badly needs refreshing.

767-400ER – In Delta One, seat 3A. JFK to Rome.

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767-400ER Delta One seat 3A

Much more modern interior than the 767-300 aircraft. And with a bigger front cabin. Ancient tiny screens were too far away, not bright enough, and too fuzzy to watch movies easily.

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767-400ER Delta One cabin

Seats, like the -300 airplane, were too narrow, but the cabin somehow felt roomy and comfortable. The hundred year old Flight Attendants (in other words, close to my own age) up front were friendly, competent, and really cared. I find Delta FAs, always very senior on long overseas flights, usually make a positive difference in the overall experience.

Really great dry Prosecco was served as boarding “Champagne” and properly chilled.  Real French Champagne (Gardet) was popped open after takeoff. 8 hrs, 48 mins to Rome meant lots of time to watch a movie and then sleep.

A nit: I was the first person to board in biz class, but five seats were already occupied. When I asked a flight attendant who they were, I got a shrug. I assumed the FAs were embarrassed to admit Delta nonrevs upgraded to Delta One had snuck on early. The one in 2A ahead of me had already taken all the overhead luggage space over my seat, which irritated me.

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767-400ER Delta One cabin

Not much surprises me on planes any more, but the meal was delicious, as good or better than one in a fine restaurant on the ground. Better than the meals on Qatar Airways or Cathay Pacific, and those airlines really put on the dog in business class. Wonderful carrot soup and cold shrimp starter. Was this really Delta?

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Excellent Gardet French Champagne complemented the plump and tasty Maryland crabcake entree with mashed potatoes and asparagus and a decent remoulade sauce. Cherry vanilla ice cream followed with hot chocolate-caramel topping. One scoop was plenty, and plenty good.

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Watched a movie (“Green Book”)—or, more accurately, listened to it while squinting at the faraway, tiny screen. Then put the seat flat and slept for a few hours. Joe Brancatelli warned me the business class seats on Delta 767s were short, and I didn’t think it would bother me because I am short. But it did. I barely fit into the space in front of me.  Same on both 767 models.

The cabin was quiet and dark wearing my Bose headphones and heavy Tumi eye shades (part of the strange Tumi hardcase amenity kit Delta provides to Delta One customers).

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767-400ER Delta One cabin with itty-bitty screens

SeatGuru.com reports that Delta has four 767-300 international configurations (26-36 Delta One chairs), but just a single 767-400 layout (40 Delta One seats). I must have flown in one of the oldest 767-300ER airplanes.

Delta just announced new non-suites seats for its 767-300 and 767-400 airplanes that are actually an inch narrower than current (20” rather than 21”).  This seems like a step backward in comfort based on my recent experience. And the length of the new seats is no better.  Yet somehow the overall dimensions limit the 767-400 cabin to just 34 new Delta One chairs versus 40 seats now.

Present or future configuration, I prefer Delta’s 777, A350, and A330 Delta One cabins and seats to either of the 767 models.  But of the two I just experienced, I’d eagerly opt for the 767-400ER over the older model.