Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Homeward Bound at the LAX Hilton

Morning broke early for us at the Hilton Playa del Carmen.

We rose at 3:00AM EST to be ready for CARM Transfer to take the four of us to CUN. Our driver arrived early and we were off by 3:50 on a pleasantly deserted highway.

We arrived at the airport by 4:45AM, said our good-byes to Tom and Ellyn, and entered Terminal 3 for our Alaska flight. Security was a breeze at this hour, and somewhat to our surprise there was no exit passport control.

We had been planning to avail ourselves of whatever delights the Priority Pass Lounge offered in the nearly four hours of time we had before the flight.

It took a couple of phone calls to confirm that, as of the end of January 2024, our AMEX Hilton Surpass credit card cancelled the 12 annual PP entries that we’ve occasionally used over the years. That’s annoying, and we’ll probably just cancel the card, especially after learning the annual fee is being raised from $95 to $150. 

On the bright side, we were both upgraded by Alaska to First, albeit seated apart, and we found out on landing that we’ve been upgraded to First for tomorrow’s LAX-SEA flight too.

We’re relaxing in the LAX Hilton, and enjoying an expansive view of the runways. 

It was raining hard as we landed after a bumpy approach through the clouds this morning, but it looks a little brighter now. 

We’ll try out hotel’s Italian eatery for dinner, figuring the $18 dining credit we each receive as one of Kathy’s Diamond benefits will bring the exorbitant menu costs down to a halfway reasonable price.

It’ll still be a shock after the “free” all-inclusive meals we’ve enjoyed for the past week.

Returning to reality is often a challenge.

And we find ourselves back in the LAX Alaska Lounge the following morning, enjoying TRIPLE SHOT Cappuccinos before boarding our flight to Seattle.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

At the Hilton Playa del Carmen: Just as Good the Second Time Around

We enjoyed ourselves here in January 2022, and were happy (and relieved) to find it just as enjoyable with Tom and Ellyn in February 2024.

The rooms are more than adequate, the grounds are beautiful, the employees are exceptionally friendly, and the dining experiences in this all-inclusive resort range from good to excellent.

We even managed to find one of our favorite 2022 waiters, Victor Herrera, still working at Asiana. Kathy recalled he and his wife had a baby who is now an active two-year old.

The food is still good, especially the sushi.

Tempting desserts…

We tried every restaurant, and found pleasing plates in all of them.

It’s a great place to spend a week eating and relaxing and eating some more. They even have a coffee bar that turns out excellent double-shot Cappuccinos.

One more day of paradise and we’ll be ready to face a gruesome 4:00AM pickup to the airport.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Sunrise at LAX

Drinking triple shot Cappuccinos in the Alaska Lounge in Terminal 6 after a 6 AM shuttle…

Upgraded to First for our flight to Cancun.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Trip Final Preparation: Look Before We Leave

 We're leaving later this morning for a stay at an all-inclusive Mexican resort, the Hilton Playa del Carmen. The two of us stayed here in January 2022, and this time Kathy's brother Tom and sister-in-law Ellyn will be joining us.

They don't leave Colorado until tomorrow, but we're flying from Bellingham to Los Angeles today and overnighting at LAX before catching a 8:18 AM flight to Cancun Tuesday morning.

In other words, it's a fairly simple trip, since we may cocoon at the resort for the entire week. Still, we always try to do some research just before a trip. What did we review for such an uncomplicated itinerary?

Like many if not most travelers, we keep a travel checklist and review it before every trip. We usually (occasionally?) have thought of everything, but every so often we're surprised. We obsessively and compulsively check to make sure we have passports, plastic cards, and cash.

Second, we look for any last-minute comments or reviews or complaints about the property on TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk. We noticed just this morning a recent TA reviewer complaining about arriving at the hotel and unable to make dinner reservations because the restaurants were full. Brian called the hotel on his cell phone's Skype app, and confirmed three dinner reservations, including a late one for our arrival tomorrow.

We also check our own blog. We've stayed here recently enough that we can remind ourselves of various details, large and small.  

We also checked in advance a new tax for visitors imposed (rather poorly) by Quintana Roo, the Mexican state we are visiting. We learned that the $20 fee is not an actual scam, and also that it has not so far been enforced. We now know that if we're requested to pay it at the airport, we can pay it without thinking we're being ripped off.

Finally, we're constantly checking our TripIt itinerary and our airline's website (Alaska) to see if there are any flight changes, cancellations, or even (hopefully) upgrades.

Phileas Fogg, the hero of one of Brian's favorite childhood books, Around the World in Eighty Days, written in 1873 by the great Jules Verne, said in regard to his own travel planning to circumnavigate the globe, "The unforeseen does not exist." While we've understood for a long time the irony of that remark, we still continue to make the effort to foresee what we can, leaving us time and energy to deal with the unforeseen as it arises.

Monday, January 29, 2024

Canceling Quito

We were all set to make our first trip to Ecuador with a flight to Quito January 24, returning February 1. Instead, we're at home in Washington State. What happened?

Well, in case you missed it in the news, on January 8 Ecuadorian President Daniel Noboa declared a nationwide state of emergency for a period of 60 days. This followed an upsurge of violence apparently carried out by criminal gangs that have plagued the country. 

Ecuador "declared war" on gangs after a TV station was attacked and taken over while it was on the air. 

According to the BBC, "President Noboa said... that an 'internal armed conflict' now existed in the country and he was mobilising the armed forces to carry out 'military operations to neutralise' what he called 'transnational organised crime, terrorist organisations and belligerent non-state actors'."

What to do? We have noticed over the decades that news organizations can paint a picture of events that appears much more dire than the actuality. Ecuador has long been considered a slightly "sketchy" destination, and perhaps it would end up being a safer environment for tourists to deal with - curfews, and the police and the military in the streets and on full alert.

Oddly enough, the US State Department did not raise its Ecuador Travel Advisory above Level Two (of four), "Exercise Increased Caution."Airlines, including our planned carrier American, were continuing to fly daily into Quito. What to do? In the end, we turned to TripAdvisor, and more specifically, the Ecuador Travel Forum, to read what a mix of locals, tour operators, and tourists were saying.

The comments of one tourist impressed us. He wrote that he was currently in Quito, that he felt reasonably safe, but that he advised anyone who wasn't already there to stay away for the time being. That made sense to us. We did cancel our trip, and managed not to lose a penny in the process. We probably would have been just fine - we're happy to see that the government is apparently getting the situation under control - but it seemed silly to voluntarily travel to a locale where things had the potential to go very sour.

We took our American Airlines flight credit and applied it to a slightly more expensive flight to Lima, Peru, in mid-April. We thoroughly enjoyed Peru on two previous visits, and we'll hope to see Ecuador another time. For now, we're looking forward to a February trip to Cancun, Mexico, and a stay at a Hilton resort in Playa del Carmen.

Friday, January 19, 2024

Fort Myers, Florida: Worth a Visit

This was a very laid-back trip. Our internal clocks are still trying to reset after our whirlwind trip to Cyprus.

We landed Sunday evening at RSW, the grandly named Southwest Florida International Airport, a modern county-owned facility. We caught an Uber for the 30-minute drive to our hotel.

The Banyan Hotel, Tapestry Collection by Hilton, was formerly an IHG Indigo,, Coincidentally, our most recent extended hotel stay was earlier in January at an IHG Indigo in Larnaca Cyprus.

It’s a pleasant property with a few quirks.We were assigned a large suite that was more than roomy. It lacked a bedside table on one side, so we improvised with the luggage rack covered by a jacket.

The bathroom included a huge walk-in shower, but the water pressure varied, every so often dropping to trickle-strength before recovering.

The Banyan is in the River District. The neighborhood includes a lot of restaurants and touristy shops. We spent a lot of time here reading menus. Food by our standards is reasonably priced and decent quality.we found nothing spectacular but nothing awful, although our Chinese lunch was mediocre after a promising start with some excellent hot and sour soup.

 Back home our neighbors were dealing with cold weather, a lot of snow, freezing rain, and dangerous roads. All we had here were overcast skies and generally only a few drops of rain, although we saw and heard some spectacular lightning and thunder one night, and it rained a couple of times, including our Friday departure for home.

Our main expedition was walking about a mile down McGregor Boulevard to the Ford-Edison Winter Estates, where the two famous innovators, after developing a friendship based on mutual admiration, built summer homes on some gorgeous waterfront property.

We started with the museum and viewed Ford Model Ts and other antique cars.

Below is a Model T owned by Thomas Edison.

We also took a guided tour of the grounds, including a peek inside the houses.

We spotted an Edison gramophone. Beside it are some of the cylinders used before discs..

Here’s a statue of Henry Ford.

And Thomas Edison in front of a Banyan tree.

At this point, we were frankly preoccupied after being notified by Alaska that our nonstop flight home Friday, RSW-SEA had been canceled.We spent a lot of time on the phone changing a three-day later rescheduling to that traveled the same day.

Alaska is in a mess right now, as a significant percentage of their Boeing 737s are MAX models. Alaska has been canceling flights only a couple of days in advance, leaving employees and customers scrambling. 

What did we end up with?

We departed RSW around 1:00 PM on an American Airlines Airbus 321, flying to DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth). We were back in Row 27 and noticed it took us about 10 minutes to deplane.

We had to ride the Skylink train to the next terminal for our DFW-SEA flight on Alaska. We found a friendly little AA Admirals Club in Terminal E, although it was a 10-minute walk to reach it.

We’d accepted Alaska’s invitation to volunteer for a bump, but it was sadly not to be. On this flight we were seated in the Premium section up front, but in middle seats one behind the other. We survived it.

We first thought we’d at least earn an extra few hundred miles for flying RSW-DFW-SEA. That totals 2,680 miles.

But wait! Flying RSW-SEA non-stop is 2,620 miles.

That’s right. That stop in Texas only added 60 lmioes to our total for the day.

Update: Alaska rebooked us in Y so we earned 2,670 EQMs just for the DFW-SEA leg. We’ll pick up another 1,020 EQMs when the AA RSW-DFW leg posts. That’s some consolation for our less-than-stellar flying day.

Tomorrow we’ll pick up 500 elite qualifying miles,?the minimum, for flying the 93 air miles from Seattle to Bellingham.

We’re canceling our trip to Quito, Ecuador, as a consequence of the government state of emergency.We’ll see if there are any other bargain destinations open in the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, it’s back to some challenging weather at home.

Update: Back where we belong (ha ha!) for our final SEA-BLI 23-minute flight of the trip…

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Going to the Dogs? Florida Bound on a Three-Day Weekend

We flew to Seattle from Bellingham Saturday afternoon and stayed overnight at the Doubletree across International Boulevard from the airport.

We both slept well and calculate that after a week at home our internal clocks have moved back about seven hours from the Cyprus time zone, using the one-day-per-time-zone rule of thumb.

With three hours still to go ((Cyprus is 10 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time), the timing was perfect to fly from our currently frigid Pacific Northwest to Fort Myers, Florida, three hours ahead of us in the Eastern time zone.

It hadn’t dawned on us that this is a three-day weekend, Martin Luther King Jr. Day tomorrow, until we saw how busy the airport seemed this morning.

For example, here’s the view as we held off and let everyone else from our train crowd up the N Gates escalator first. 

The terminal itself was even busier than the photo below indicates, and we had to work to find seats in the Alaska Lounge.

We were fortunate to be 1-2 on the upgrade list for this SEA-RSW flight of about 2600 miles, and even more fortunate when our upgrades cleared last night and we find ourselves seated in bulkhead Row 1 D-F in this Boeing non-MAX 737-900.

We’d seen a number of “emotional support dogs”
around the terminal, so weren’t too surprised to see one board our flight.

He or she was followed by two under-seat canines carried by their presumably husband and wife owners (not that we should presume anything in these modern times).

The dogs are already breaking the rules, as they’re supposed to remain completely inside their carriers at all times. 

It’s not for us to worry, as we enjoy our view of northern Wyoming.

Our meals are tasteless.

The cheesecake, decorated with a Hawaiian orchid, makes up for it. Delicious!

The time is flying by, so to speak, and we’re scheduled to arrive in a little over three hours.

Once landed at RSW (Southwest Florida International Airport), we’ll try to make a quick decision between a supposedly preset zone taxi rate and Uber or Lyft for the half-hour ride into Fort Myers and the Banyan Hotel, Tapestry Collection by Hilton.

We akways do our best to research research such details in advance, but this time without success. We’ll just have to improvise.

In the meantime, we enjoy the sunset just north of Wichita, Kansas, and a smooth flight with great service from our flight attendant.

After we land, we check prices and can catch an Uber $5-6 cheaper than a cab. You can choose any arrival door, and within five minutes Sean is driving us to our hotel in a luxurious Honda Pilot.

It’s definitely a good start to our visit.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The Trip Home, and an Airport Everyone Loves to Hate

Our return trip from Larnaca, Cyprus comprises one airport fewer than our outgoing trip: Larnaca to London Heathrow, overnight at Heathrow, and onward to Vancouver the following evening. It looks downright leisurely but still proves to offer a few challenges.

Boarding at LCA is mildly chaotic, with gate lice blocking the way. We do find a path eventually and squeeze into our seats in Row 5.

Our British Airways flight LCA-LHR is on the same type of plane we'd flown outbound, an A321 with space between the seats (the pitch) of only 31 inches or less, making it impossible, for example, to cross one's legs. That's exactly the same in economy or in its European-style business class, which maintains the same pitch, and a total of six seats across the single-aisle plane, but blocks the middle seat.

Brian’s Screwdriver is short on orange juice, but the vodka makes up for it.

The meal (we both choose the chicken curry) is surprisingly tasty with some real bite in the sauce. 

When Brian compliments the young flight attendant who served it, she laughs and replies, "Don't sound so surprised."

Kathy's flight, like her LHR-LCA outbound, is again marred by a young child seated behind her. Talk about an unpleasant coincidence! In between crying and complaining, and at one point slamming the window shade up and down loudly, the tyke’s little legs are long enough to kick the back of her seat from time to time throughout the flight. Fnally we land. Now it's time to navigate Heathrow, which some surveys recognize as among the best airports, while others list it among the worst. Maybe it's a little bit of each. 

We deplane (another word we love to hate) after a five-hour flight in Terminal 5 at 10:30 PM, already half past Midnight in Cyprus. Getting around Heathrow involves a lot of walking, trains, escalators, and elevators to reach our destination, the Terminal 4 Heathrow Hilton.

As travel writer Rick Steves notes, "Heathrow Airport is one of the world's busiest airports. Think about it: 75 million passengers a year on 500,000 flights from 185 destinations riding 80 airlines, like some kind of global maypole dance." Steves also offers a good overview of the layout: 

Heathrow's terminals are numbered T-1 through T-5. Though T-1 is now closed for arrivals and departures, it still supports other terminals with baggage, and the newly renovated T-2 ("Queen's Terminal") will likely expand into the old T-1 digs eventually. Each terminal is served by different airlines and alliances; for example, T-5 is exclusively for British Air and Iberia Air flights, while T-2 serves mostly Star Alliance flights, such as United and Lufthansa. Screens posted throughout the airport identify which terminal each airline uses; this information should also be printed on your ticket or boarding pass.

You can walk between T-2 and T-3. From this central hub (called "Heathrow Central"), T-4 and T-5 split off in opposite directions (and are not walkable). The easiest way to travel between the T-2/T-3 cluster and either T-4 or T-5 is by Heathrow Express train (free to transfer between terminals, departs every 15–20 minutes). You can also take a shuttle bus (free, serves all terminals), or the Tube (requires a ticket, serves all terminals).

We walk and walk and eventually go through the automated immigration gates without a problem. We walk some more and travel down two sets of escalators, arriving just in time to miss the automated train that runs back and forth between here and Baggage Reclaim.

We wait several minutes and take the train when it returns. We walk some more and print free tickets to ride the Heathrow Express from our terminal 5 arrival to Terminals  2-3.

We wait some more and then ride a train to the first stop at Terminal 2-3. We then have a 20-minute wait for the next "tube" to Terminal 4. As we wait for that train - eight more minutes - we realize it’s now 75 minutes since we got off our flight. Just before the train arrives, the employee makes an almost incomprehensible (to us) announcement. We do hear that “this is the last train.” Lucky us. This train deposits us at Terminal 4 82 minutes after we had "deplaned" in Terminal 5. 

Once there, the only way to get upstairs is via a bank of three elevators.We watch our fellow train riders crowd into a couple before maneuvering into one ourselves.  

From there, it's one last long and chilly and sometimes dark walk down the covered walkway, quite tunnel-like, to reach the Hilton. 

One hour and 45 minutes after "deplaning," we reach the desk, and stand in our final queue of the day.

We manage a reasonable sleep until about 10:00 AM, and manage a late checkout from 1 PM. This allows us time to make the 45-minute trip back to Terminal 3 to engage in some lounge visits prior to our departure. Terminal 3 has one of the best collections of OneWorld lounges of any airport, and we decide to utilize our OneWorld Emerald status to visit two of them prior to boarding our flight.

Our first stop is the Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge, where we drink some Champagne (the Perrier is outstanding) and dine on Dan Dan Mien, Dim Sum, and sea bass.

We walk next door to the Qantas First Lounge, drink some more wine, this time Aussie sparkling, and order their famous salt and pepper squid. Pretty good!

Their Beef and Pork Polpette is also tasty.

After all that fine dining and wine tasting, we board our BA A350, equipped with the new suites, including doors we don’t bother using, and enjoy the nine-hour flight back to Vancouver, even catching some sleep along the way.

Brian is bemused enough by the passenger in the suite behind Kathy who, an hour before landing, stares non-stop at her monitor for close to half an hour to snap a photo of him. 

He looks a little like Larry David, and Brian wonders if it's a scene being filmed for Curb Your Enthusiasm. If you don’t know the show, “Episodes frequently center on Larry's ignorance of or disregard for well-established social conventions and expectations, and his insistence that others adhere to rules of which only he seems to be aware. This social ineptitude, combined with his inability to let even the most minor grievance or annoyance go unexpressed, often leads him into awkward social situations and draws the ire of his friends, family, and total strangers." Yeah, that’s about right.

We notice that the roughly one-hour drive home from there back into the U.S. on a quiet Tuesday night is significantly quicker than transferring between LHR terminals. That includes picking up our car at the Vancouver Airport Park'N Fly.

We have a few tasks to catch up on before leaving in a couple of days for our short trip to Florida. 

It’s always nice to be back home for awhile.