Our time in Johannesburg was short, barely two days, so we had to allocate our time wisely. We decided that we should spend our first day visiting Lion Country Safari. After all, how many times does one get the chance to do this?
We had landed in Johannesburg at 6 a.m., got to our hotel, checked in, ate, then rested for an hour or two. At noon our tour guide came to pick us up.
He told us his name in his native tongue and frankly, we could not repeat it. It did however begin with the letter T, so he said we could call him Mr. T, or just T. So be it!
We had a 40 minute drive to the lion park. The cars in South Africa drive on the left side of the road, the opposite of what we in the USA are accustomed to. This shattered an urban legend I had heard that the only places where cars drive on the left are islands (Ireland, the United Kingdom, etc.). So I guess I can stop telling people that one.
As we drove to the park, we asked T about all the buildings we saw with the high walls and fences around them. He explained that was due to the high crime rate and added that personal and building security was the number one growth industry in the nation. We stopped at one intersection and saw a large sign posted by the provincial government, “Warning, you are entering a high crime area.” Even with that, we never felt threatened or in danger in the short time we were in the country.
We eventually arrived at the park.
After the souvenir shop we had our fist chance to see the animals: these were not particularly wild, they were behind a fence that we could walk up to.
After seeing these animals up close, it was time for us to get in the car and have T drive us out to the area where the lions roamed.
I was very happy at this time that I had bought a new camera, the Fuji SL1000. The 50X optical zoom would come in handy as we drove by, but not very close to, the large cats.
T drove us around the rest of the park, we saw more lions, some wild dogs, and some more lions. By now the day was starting to catch up with us, it was Sunday afternoon and we had been on the go since we left Austin on Friday evening, so we were very glad to hear T say that we had seen the entire park. After another quick stop at the souvenir shop, he drove us back to the hotel.
We had dinner and then called it a night. I looked forward to sleeping in a bed for the first time since Thursday night. Suffice to say, we slept very well.
Day two in Johannesburg
We slept fairly late, then went to the hotel dining room for a wonderful breakfast; we again sat on the outdoor veranda and enjoyed the mild weather.
My friend loves to drink iced tea, even with breakfast; when he ordered it, the server had no idea what he meant. Eventually he figured out the best thing to do was to order a pot of hot tea with two large glasses of ice. That worked.
We were still tired from the previous day and decided to take it easy, we’d walk over to Mandela Square, located just a few blocks from our hotel.
Nelson Mandela Square is not an outdoor square like Times Square in New York, you can’t drive by and see it. Rather, it is the interior courtyard of a large group of buildings that include an upscale hotel, a shopping mall, a library, many restaurants, and offices. It seemed fairly obvious to me that its construction was not only a tribute to the great man, but also part of the economic development of the Sandton area of Johannesburg.
We had to walk through the shopping mall to get to the famous Mandela Statue, it was worth the effort.
We shopped at some of the local craft shops located next to the library, then ate lunch at a restaurant in the square. By now it was past noon, so we walked back to the hotel, packed our bags and checked out.
The hotel had a shuttle bus that took us to the Gautrain station. We took that, and went to O.R. Tambo International Airport, went to the British Airways counter to check-in, and that is where one of my most fouled up trips ever began. I’ll share that story in the next article.
The first of our two mileage runs to Johannesburg, South Africa, got off to a good start. My friend and I had a flight from Austin to DFW at 6:30 on a Friday evening, so for once, I did not need to get up before sunrise to catch my flight.
We arrived at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and had an easy check-in, things go so quickly when you don’t have any bags to check! After a visit to the Admirals Club we boarded our flight to DFW. We had been upgraded to First Class, and while we were not sitting in the same row, that was not a very big deal since our flight would only last 34 minutes.
Unfortunately, the flight was 15 minutes late leaving Austin. We only had a one-hour layover at DFW for our London flight so we were a bit concerned about this. But as the old saying goes, if you can’t do anything about it, don’t worry about it.
We had a smooth flight to DFW and quickly made our way to Terminal D, where boarding had already started for our London flight. We had been upgraded to Business Class and, with boarding already begun, hoped there would be room in the overhead compartments for our bags. Fortunately there was, so we stowed our bags, made ourselves comfortable, and prepared for our 9-hour flight.
We were on a 777-200: Business Class had a 2-3-2 configuration. We were in the middle section, and I was in the middle seat. The seats on the 777-200 go flat, which will help with sleep, but they are not parallel to the cabin floor, there is a slight downward angle to them. Some refer to these as the wedgie seats. I hoped this would not interfere with my sleep.
Once we took off my friend sampled the movies in the IFE, while I watched some shows that I had loaded on my tablet. After a while, it was time for dinner.
Our earlier concerns about the wedgie seats were unfounded. The late hour, the pillow and blanket (and a sleeping pill) assured me a good night’s sleep.
I slept for a few hours, woke to an omelet for breakfast, and then got ready for our arrival at London Heathrow.
We had one of the worst layovers you can possibly have: 6 hours. That is long enough to be boring, but not long enough to allow enough time to go into town.
We spent the entire time at BA’s First Class Lounge at Terminal 5.
We had very little to do for the next few hours.We ate, charged our phones, walked around a bit, I took a shower,and that was about it. Like I said, a boring layover. Our flight to JNB was scheduled to depart at 6 p.m., so I started to look on the departures screen for our gate number. At 2 and 3 p.m. the flight was listed, but the gate was not. Four o’clock came and still no gate number.
I asked the lady at the desk about this, she replied that BA does not post gate numbers until 90 minutes before departure. That seemed to be an odd policy to me, American Airlines always lets me know the gate two hours in advance, but there wasn’t much I could do about this.
4:30, departure minus 90 minutes, and still no gate number. At 4:55, far less than an hour before boarding would start, we still did not know our gate number. The lady at the desk suggested we take the train to the B terminal, we’d probably be at gate 35.
So, we took the train to the B terminal, got off, looked at the departure screen to finally see some information, our flight would be departing from Terminal B. They still hadn’t posted a gate number, but at least they listed the terminal. We walked down to gate 35 where we saw a sign announcing our JNB flight so we relaxed, at least we were in the right place. The boarding area was fairly crowded, we never figured out how all those people knew what gate to go to.
We boarded and went to our seats. We had Business Class on American Airlines, but no such luck on BA, coach seats, three across. My buddy had the aisle, I was in the middle, and a gentleman had the window seat.
We took off, and soon ate dinner. Shortly thereafter, it was time for me to go to sleep. As I mentioned, I was in the middle seat in coach. The guy to my right could not keep his arm off the arm rest that we could supposedly share. He wasn’t being rude, it’s just that he was a big guy who could not fit very easily in a coach seat. So I pulled my arms in as close to my body as I could and slept for a few hours.
Thankfully, I was able to get some sleep, awoke for breakfast, and then our 6 a.m. landing at O.R. Tambo airport in Johannesburg. The South Africans spent billions of dollars upgrading facilities for World Cup — one of those was the improvement of the JNB airport into a new modern facility that I would favorably compare to any other terminal I have been in.
After clearing customs we made our way to the Gautrain station. Gautrain opened in 2009, in time for World Cup.
We had a short ride to our destination, the Sandton district of Johannesburg. Sandton is one the most significant business and financial district in South Africa. Everywhere we looked we saw modern buildings, shops, restaurants.
It took us just a few minutes to find our hotel. While everything in Sandton is new, our hotel was the exception. In the 1870s it was a place where people could stop and get water for the horses when riding from Johannesburg to Pretoria. It later grew into a 300+ room hotel that opened in 1949. I think you’ll find its history to be both interesting and entertaining.
We checked into our room, a suite with two bedrooms, then went to for breakfast.
After eating we went back to our room and rested for a few hours, we had a busy day ahead of us — I’ll share that story in my next article.
Disclaimer: I own stock in both Boeing and the American Airlines Group.
Earlier this month I did my first really long mileage run of the year, all the way to Anchorage, Alaska. It was special because of all the miles I earned at a great price, and also because my friend joined me on his first ever run.
The day started early, he picked me up at 4:30 a.m. and we went to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. After a short stay at the Admirals Club, we went to our departure gate for the short flight to DFW.
This was my first visit to an AC in many months and I was glad to see that they had updated the coffee service. In the past your choice was regular or decaf and that was it. Now they have one of the newer machines that also offers cappuccino, latte, and mocha. For me, that is a welcome addition to the club.
We had an uneventful trip to DFW and quickly went to the Terminal A Admirals Club. Our DFW layover was 4 hours 45 minutes. I knew there was an earlier flight to Seattle and I hoped we could get changed to that one. The AAngel behind the counter gave us stand-by boarding passes for the earlier flight and told us to go the gate and see if they had any seats. My hope was that we that we would make that flight and then also get an earlier flight from Seattle to Anchorage.
As we walked to the gate I saw a familiar face, Tom Horton, the CEO of AMR Corporation, American Airlines parent company, whom I had met last year when I went to the 787 Dreamliner event at DFW. I said hello to him and he spent several minutes talking with us. He had no entourage, was dressed casually, and seemed very excited about where the company was going, and expressed confidence that the Justice Department lawsuit blocking the American / US Air merger would be tossed aside. I was not only impressed by his enthusiasm, but also the fact that he stopped to talk with us and did not blow us off. Thank you sir!
We arrived at the gate and asked the gate agent if there was room for us on the flight. I suppose he was dealing with numerous issues at once, his attitude told us he was too busy to deal with us now, he told us to wait. My friend said to me, “We were just treated better by the CEO of a mufti-billion corporation that we were by a gate agent.!” He was right. But once the GA got all of the other things take care of, he was much nicer to us. Everyone boarded the aircraft and he told us there were two seats remaining, we got them without having to pay a change fee (having elite status does have its benefits!) and we boarded the flight to Seattle. I had a first class upgrade on the original flight and ended up in coach on this one, but I was glad to give it up to get this earlier flight.
I sat in the front of the coach section, which AA calls Main Cabin Extra. The extra legroom was a pleasant surprise, I appreciated being seated in that area.
We arrived in Seattle and went to the Alaska Airlines Board Room club where I hoped we could be moved to an earlier Anchorage flight. This was when I found the benefit of my American Airlines elite status, and what it meant to not be able to use it. The very friendly Alaska staff said we could probably be moved to another flight, but we had to see a ticket agent, they could not help us. They also added that there would be change fees involved. Change fees? With that news, we decided to stay at SeaTac for 4 hours and get our regularly scheduled flight to ANC.
We ate some snacks in the club, then decided to visit the food court for lunch. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: the food court at SeaTac is one of the best places in the nation to watch planes depart and arrive.
We soon made our way, by train, to Terminal N, the remote terminal that Alaska Airlines uses. We looked at the people waiting to board and said “Don’t they realize they are going to Alaska?” These people were in shorts, t-shirts, no jackets. We joked that they obviously thought they were going to Anchorage, Florida. How wrong we were.
We boarded: my original reservation said that I was in 9C, an aisle seat, but my boarding pass said 9B, the middle row. Again, another issue with not having elite status on Alaska Airlines. Fortunately, the two gentlemen I sat with offered pleasant conversation and the flight passed quickly.
We landed on time at Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage and made our way to the People Mover, the bus that goes downtown once an hour. As soon as we stepped outside I was stunned at how gorgeous it was. Clear skies, no wind, moderate temperatures, just wonderful!
Almost all of the documentaries I see about Alaska show it as cold, remote, barren. That was the picture I had in my mind, it just never occurred to me that Alaska would have mild temperatures and flowers in bloom. As they say, that’s my bad, I should have known better.
We took a cab downtown, that cost $20. The public transit system has a bus, The People Mover, that goes downtown, but it only runs once an hour and we did not want to wait another 45 minutes for it to arrive, time was short.
We got out of the cab at the Captain Cook hotel land walked a few blocks to the water’s edge where we walked through a park and I saw one of the most clever signs about dogs that I had ever seen.
By now we were hungry, very hungry. A guidebook had recommended The Glacier Brewhouse on 5th Avenue; we were nearby so we decided to stop there for dinner. We were led to our table after a short wait. Living in Central Texas we can visit seafood restaurants, although Red Lobster can get sort of old. One of the things I like about visiting a town on the coast is the seafood, it always tastes so much fresher. I reviewed the menu and decided on the Wood-Grilled Alaskan Salmon, cilantro marinade, seared crab and rice cake, skillet roasted corn relish, fresh lime hollandaise, and grilled fresh asparagus. I was glad I did.
I was glad I made that choice. The salmon was tender and full of flavor, but I really enjoyed the crabcake, easily the best I had ever had. I ordered their Barvarian Hefeweizen as my beverage, it was wonderful. My friend ordered a different beer, I don’t recall what it was, but they brought it to him in a wine glass, explaining that it was so high in alcohol content that they could not serve it in a larger glass. He and I each had one sip and decided that was enough.
Once dinner was over we spent a few hours walking through downtown, we really did not have any specific goal, we just wanted to see the area.
Anchorage is a fairly good-sized city with a population of more than 300,000. Thus, while walking around downtown, we really don’t get a feel for being in Alaska, it just feels like another medium size city with department stores, fast food chains, etc. Other than the mountains in the distance, we could have been in Omaha for all I knew.
We bought some souvenirs, then found a place that a friend had recommended called Humpy‘s on 6th Avenue. We had a late night snack and some more of their home-brewed beer, which we found to be tastier than what we had at our previous location. We stayed quite a while, enjoyed the live music, then got a cab back to the airport. It was past 11:30 and our flight to Seattle would depart at 2 a.m.
By now we were thoroughly exhausted; it had been almost 23 hours since we had left my house and while that was not a challenge back in our college days, well, let’s just say we are not as young as we once were at leave it at that.
There was a very long line at the security check-in which normally would not be an issue, but since we were flying out on Alaska Airlines we did not have elite status, thus no priority access and we had to wait on the security line. At least that made me appreciate my AA status even more.
We cleared security, went to our gate and soon thereafter were on our flight to Seattle. Once we arrived at SEA-TAC we went to the Alaska Airlines Board Room for coffee, juice, and pancakes. Fully refreshed, we boarded our AA flight to DFW. Once we arrived at DFW we were able to switch to an earlier flight to Austin, getting in 2 hours ahead of schedule.
It had been a very long weekend, but it was worth it. I earned 14,428 miles from a ticket that cost $355: that came out to 2.46 cents per mile, one of the best rates I had gotten in a long time. I also earned 7,260 EQMs It was worth it. And at that great price we have two more Anchorage trips scheduled — we’ll rent a car and get out of Anchorage on those trips.
Let the mileage runs continue!
This has been a busy year, leaving me with little time to do mileage runs, a problem particularly if we want to return to Bali next year.
I was looking through the mileage run section on FlyerTalk and saw several great deals to Anchorage, Alaska from Los Angeles and New York. I wondered if I could get one from Austin. I visited the ITA Matrix site and saw that I could fly from Austin to Anchorage and back in August over a weekend for just $351. That’s an outstanding price! So, I immediately went to AA.com to make my reservation. And that is where the problem occurred.
That was not what I expected to see. How could there be a $125 difference between ITA Matrix and AA.com. they are usually in total agreement. I went back and looked at the itinerary that ITA had put together — I couldn’t even recreate it on AA.com. What to do?
I decided to visit Kayak.com and found many itineraries for the weekend I wanted, priced at $356, five dollars more than ITA but still more than $100 less than AA.com.
Some of the schedules were easier than others. The shortest in duration had me leaving Austin at 2 p.m. on Saturday, arriving in Anchorage shortly after 1 a.m. Sunday, then flying back to Austin at 2 a.m., arriving at AUS at 6 p.m. Sunday. I gave that some thought and decided I did not want to fly all the way to Alaska and not even be able to leave the airport. So, I selected a much longer trip, with extended layovers, but the chance to leave the airport and go into Anchorage for several hours.
We (my good friend is joining me on the trip, his first mileage run!) will leave Austin at 6:35 a.m. on Saturday, arriving DFW at 7:35. Then we have the first problem of the trip, a very long layover — we won’t depart DFW until 12:20, a 4 hour 45 minute layover. Thankfully, things improve after that! We’ll arrive Seattle at 2:20, then take leave for Anchorage at 3:55 on Alaska Airlines, arriving ANC at 6:35 p.m.
We’ll have plenty of time to go downtown, see some sights, and hopefully get some good food; I’m looking forward to some good salmon!
We’ll leave ANC a 2 a.m. Sunday arriving SEA 6:15 a.m. At 7:30 we’ll be on our way to DFW, arriving at 1:15 Sunday afternoon. And then another long layover, we won’t leave for AUS until 5:20 p.m., getting in at 6:15.
I’ll earn 7,216 EQMs and 14,432 RDMs. With a price of $356, that puts my cost per mile at 2.46 cents, one of the best deals I’ve gotten in quite a while.
Kayak had a link to visit AA.com to purchase the ticket and sure enough I got that itinerary at that price. That raised the question of why did Kayak let me buy a ticket from AA for $356, but the best AA could give me was $476?
I wrote to AA and asked why there was such a great discrepancy. They replied that the website will not build an itinerary that features layovers of more than four hours, and I have two of those. They said I could have gotten that deal if I had requested a multi-city itinerary: AUS-DFW-SEA-ANC-SEA-DFW-AUS, but that was the only way.
I did some research on FlyerTalk.com and found that a layover of more than four hours is considered to be a stop, rather than a layover, which makes a difference to the airline, although not much to me. Too much legalese for me.
We’re going to try to improve the schedule. We plan to see if we can go standby and get an earlier DFW-SEA flight. If we can do that. we’ll see if Alaska Airlines will let us do that same for the ANC flight, we’d arrive ANC almost two hours earlier. If we get the first change but not the second, it will at least break-up the long layover.
On the way home, there are several DFW-AUS flights that leave before our scheduled flight — we’ll try to go standby on one of those and get home earlier.
It will be a long weekend, but we’re looking forward to it!
Late February — it was about time for me to have my first mileage run of the year. Last year I had completed almost a dozen trips in January alone, the triple EQM award to San Fransisco was a great incentive. This year there weren’t any comparable deals, so I kept looking. I eventually found a trip I had taken many times before, Austin to DFW to Seattle to Portland to DFW to Austin for $240. Not great, but not bad either. I’d leave Austin early in the morning (6:10 a.m.) and be back by 10:30 p.m. It would be a long day, made even longer by the the fact that this was a mid-week flight and I would have to be up early the next morning to go to work.
The day started well, I got to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and got word that I had been upgraded to First Class for the AUS-DFW segment. Normally I would not be overly excited about an upgrade on a flight that lasts less than an hour, but I had a short layover at DFW and sitting in the front of the plane would get me off and on my way to the next flight more quickly.
I had an uneventful flight to DFW, got to my departure gate and was glad to see that I was number one on the upgrade list to First Class. An upgrade for a 4.5 hour flight, that’s nice!
My upgrade came through and I boarded the Boeing 737 for the flight to Seattle. I was looking forward to one thing: watching a movie. I got a Kindle Fire HD tablet for Christmas and had loaded some movies on there for the trip. The first was a classic movie, an all-time great, that I had never seen from start to finish: The Godfather. I set the Fire on my food-tray, plugged in the headphones, and started to watch it. The only problem was that I did not realize The Godfather was a three-hour movie. By the end of the second hour, I was hoping someone, anyone, would make Don Corleone an offer he could not refuse if it would end the film.
While I joke about it, all it all I was pretty happy with the experience. The Fire was easier to carry around than a laptop, gave me an HD picture, and still had 70% power left when the movie was over. So, it was a good experience.
I did have to pause in the middle of the movie for a delicious breakfast.
It was soon time to land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEATAC). It had been a smooth flight and we arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule. I had a 90 minute wait before I took my Alaska Airlines flight to Portland. I spent that time in the Alaska Airlines Board Room, eating some snacks and catching up on my email.
I soon made my way to the Alaska Airlines departure area for my short one hour flight to Portland aboard a Dash 400.
We landed on time in Portland. leaving me with another one hour layover. Shortly after we arrived though I received a call from AA flight status letting me know that the Portland-DFW flight would depart 30 minutes late. I had a one hour layover in DFW for my Austin flight, would this delay cause me to miss my connection?
I called AA’s Executive Platinum desk and explained my concerns. The representative listened as I explained my story, then laughed and said “You don’t have anything to worry about sir, your flight to Austin is also going to be late.”.
I received the upgrade to First Class for the Portland-DFW flight which left 35 minutes late. We had a smooth flight to DFW where I connected to my Austin flight which also departed 35 minutes late. I should have been on the ground in Austin by 11 p.m., but it was almost 11:30 when we finally landed and well past midnight by the time I got home. This might have been okay for a Saturday flight, but on a Tuesday when I had to get up for work the next morning, it was not much fun.
But I did earn 4,775 EQMs and a total of 9,548 miles, so it all had a purpose. I never left the airport — my next mileage run however will give me almost a full day in Seattle, so I look forward to that. In the meantime, I continue to look for good deals, which appear to be few and far between. But I’ll keep looking!
We’re two-thirds of the way through 2012, and I must say it has been a pretty good AAdvantage year for me.
I’ve earned Executive Platinum status through February 2014.
I’ve used many of those miles to purchase a trip for later in the year when my wife and I will visit Bali, Indonesia. We’ll fly First Class on American Airlines from Austin to Los Angeles, then Business Class on a Cathay Pacific 777-300ER to Hong Kong. Then we’ll again fly Business Class on Cathay to Bali. This flight was originally on a 747-400 and we were seated upstairs. But Cathay, like many other airlines, is starting to ground the 747-400 to reduce costs. So now we are on a “regional” 777-200.
The difference between this plane and our LAX-HKG plane is that the 777-300ER is a three-class aircraft (First, Business, and Economy), and business class seating is only four seats across per aisle; it is Cathay’s most luxurious aircraft. We’ll be in a forward section of the plane that only has two rows for a total of eight passengers.
The 777-200 is a two-class aircraft (Business and Economy), and business class is seven seats across per aisle. In other words, while it will be nice, it will not be as luxurious as the 777-300ER is or the 747-400 would have been. I’m sorry that we won’t be on the 747 for that flight, it may have been our last opportunity to fly on one of the most iconic aircraft of the 20th century. Japan Airlines, British Air, and Cathay Pacific are just some of the airlines that are grounding the 747-400 in place of more fuel efficient aircraft. Boeing has launched the 747-800, but so far only Lufthansa has ordered the aircraft for passenger service (several companies have ordered it as a freighter). Since Lufthansa is not a Oneworld partner with American Airlines, the chance of me flying with them is very small.
And that’s it for me for the rest of the year. I don’t have any other trips planned, no mileage runs on the calendar. What a difference from earlier in the year when I was flying so much!
I’ve looked for some 2012 mileage runs, but have not found many good deals. With that I have decided it make more sense for me to put my into flying and re-qualifying for elite status next year. I’ve seen some January-February R/Ts to Seattle for $235 which is good, but certainly not great. I may book some of those as we get later in the year if I can’t find anything better. I’ve looked at Flyertalk.com and seen some interesting deals (Honolulu to Chicago to Helsinki, Finland and back) but not found any that I can get to work from Austin.
I’ll keep looking, something is bound to show up. However, I think AA is probably holding off on any special deals until it emerges from bankruptcy and possibly merges with another airlines.
Disclaimer: I own stock in AMR Corp, the parent of American Airlines. The total value of my holdings is less than $90.