18 December 2011


I had spent almost a week in Belgium a couple of summers ago.  I decided to take a quick trip back, base myself out of Brussels again, and visit during the Christmas Market season.  I also used the opportunity to change out some old Belgian Francs I still had at the Central Bank (there is no time limit for changing the old currency to euros).

This was another one of those itineraries where my original plans were forced to be altered by United.  Originally, I had booked my flights to be on Untied to and from Frankfurt and on Lufthansa between Frankfurt and Brussels.  A few weeks prior to the trip, United contacted me to say that I needed to switch to the United departure from Brussels to Chicago and then to SFO from there.  They cited that the Lufthansa flight I was on was no longer available.  When I checked, the flight was still there, so what I suspect is that the Lufthansa flight was no longer being made available to me via United.  I really didn't want to change since traveling through Chicago in winter can endanger one's plans, but they really weren't giving me a choice.  Plus, the Brussels flight to Chicago would be using the updated 767 plane, which I tend to like these days.  I do have to say though that the flight attendants in First class in both directions were all very nice and provided excellent service.

Landing in Brussels was a new experience for me even though I had been there before.  Both prior times, arrival had been by train.  This time, I arrived via plane and it was pretty easy, especially since I cleared passport control in Germany.   I found my way to the train station at the lowest level, bought a ticket from the window (couldn't find any vending machines -- but they don't take non-Belgian cards anyway), and figured out the right platform.  They are in the process of renovating the airport - Central Brussels connection, so they charger an extra fee and there is a lot of construction going on in the station.

I took the train to its terminus at Gare du Mid/Zuidstation and then went down a couple of more levels to buy a 3-day metro pass and rode three stops to Louiza station.  The Conrad is about a 5-minute walk from the station.

The Conrad was very nice.  I had to wait just a few minutes for them to verify my upgraded room (Signature room with Terrace) was clean and ready.  The breakfast buffet was quite ample, and the lounge has a nice afternoon tea service available (with live music on Saturdays).

I immediately set out for the Central Bank, as it closes at 3:30.   I changed my money without issue, although you have to show your passport for the transaction.

Next, I headed to check out the location of a dinner I had planned for later that evening at Jaloa gastronomique.  This took me to one of the Christmas Market locations which had these great carousels with interesting things to sit on -- not your typical horses.  I also checked out an olive oil store that specializes in oils from Provence.

Later that evening, I had a very nice 9-course dinner that lasted about 4 hours.  I was not presented with a menu, so I had no idea what I would be getting.  I only knew the style of food (molecular gastronomy/avant garde cuisine).

Over the next couple of days, I took train trips to Ghent and Namur.  I had been to Ghent before on a short work trip, but never had time to really explore the city.  It is very picturesque.

Namur was a new destination for me.  It is a very old settlement and has a citadel located across the river overlooking the town.

To avoid any unnecessary delays on my return, I purchased my Airport train ticket the day before (sometimes the domestic train ticket window lines can be long).  The train I had intended to take was running late, so I watched and listened for the announcements about which train was leaving next for the airport.  Fortunately the next train was only a couple of platforms away.

Since I was leaving on a United flight, I would be using a different part of the airport than when I arrived.  Since United has a very small presence, it was a little difficult to locate where the United check-in took place, but I was eventually pointed to the appropriate area within the Brussels Airways Star Alliance area.

The flight over was very nice. Upon arrival in Chicago, I was met at the plane door and advised where to go for my next flight after re-checking my luggage and clearing customs.  I informed the agent that there was one problem from Brussels -- I was not given my ongoing boarding pass.  The agent promptly took care of it while I waited for my luggage.  Once I cleared customs, I got on the train for Terminal 1, cleared security (fortunately not crowded as it was the same security that all the domestic flights use).  My flight was on the same concourse at the International First Class Lounge and Arrivals Facility.  I was offered use of the showers and grabbed a quick snack in the lounge before heading to the plane.  Unfortunately, it went a little downhill at this point.  A 45-minute mechanical problem turned into a 4-hour delay.  I did eventually use the agents at the First Class Lounge to book me on a back-up flight, but my plane eventually left, getting me home much later than expected and having much less time to regroup for a quick turnaround for my flight to Newark the next day.

Buenos Aires

This was my first ever trip to South America.  I had decided to plan on this earlier in the year.  My intent was to purchase a Z class business ticket and then upgrade with miles and money to First (United flies a 3-class upgraded 767 to BA), and I was successful in doing that.   However, a few months later, I was going through my itineraries and noticed that the flight from IAD to EZE (Washington Dulles to Buenos Aires) had disappeared.  I called United and they said that they were not going to fly to BA during the weekdays starting in October.  So, I had to rebook my outbound flight on Continental, same fare, in Business First (not quite what I had wanted to pay for per my initial plans).  Subsequently, I found out that I was misinformed.  United was continuing to fly on a daily basis to BA, but they just didn't want to fly the route with a return flight on Thanksgiving Day (I also learned that they are moving the starting point for the flight from IAD to EWR).

My Continental routing took be from SFO to Houston (IAH).  I was in First on the first segment, which was on a Continental 757.  I thought the plane was a little nicer than the 757s that United flies, although the food was pretty similar in quality.  Connecting from a domestic flight to an international one in IAH requires a bit of a walk.  The United/Continental Club in IAH is very big, but doesn't offer anything different than the old Red Carpet Clubs.  My flight to BA was on the older Continental 767 planes (no flat seats yet), so I was disappointed in this respect as even if I had not been upgraded on United, Business on that plane has flat-bed seats.  Nevertheless, I did manage to get some sleep since it was an overnight flight.

Upon arrival at the BA international airport, the first thing you have to do is pay the entrance fee (a whopping US$140).  I can't really complain as the US does the same thing for Argentinians entering the US.  The fee is valid for 10 years, although I am not sure what happens if your passport expires before then.  You can pay by credit card at the window.  After the fee and the sticker placed in your passport, you go through regular passport control, which was very quick.

I knew there was no easy public transportation into the city from the airport.  I had read about the remise service (essentially pre-arranged car service arranged at the arrivals counters before exiting) and some friends had done this quite easily on their trip a few months before.  However, I opted to let the hotel handle this, so there was someone waiting for me with a sign ready to take me to the Algodon Mansion Hotel.  First, I wanted to get some cash.  Unfortunately, the only ATM machine was not able to communicate with the networks, and the line to get cash at the bank window was too long, so I gave up.  There is a fee of A$17.14 for an ATM withdrawal, which is tacked on in addition to the amount you request.

November is summer in South America and the day was sunny and very warm.  Average temperature during my stay was around 90.
 degrees F.  But it was not too humid and there was no rain, so it was very good weather for touring.

The Algodon Mansion Hotel in Recoleta is a very nice boutique hotel (only 10 suites). The hotel and the rooms are well-appointed.  There's even a small pool and deck area on the roof.  And the staff are just superb, always very nice and very helpful.

Once I settled in, I met up with a friend from college who was spending a few months touring South America and managed to work his travel so that we would cross paths in BA.  We covered a lot of ground, visiting landmarks such as the well-known pedestrian bridge on Puerto Madero, Casa Rosada, markets in San Telmo, the Floris Generalis moving sculpture, Palermo Soho, and the Congressio.

We also went to a tango show (and even took a dance lesson before the show), rode the subway (cheap but not air conditioned), and walked through numerous street markets.

On my own, I visited a couple of olive stores (I was in search of local olive oil) and had a nice dinner arranged by my hotel at a place called Unik in Palermo Hollywood.

On my last day, my flight was not departing until late in the evening, so the hotel stored my luggage and let me use the spa to freshen up before taking me to the airport.  They recommend leaving 3 hours before your departure and it is a good idea.  While getting through is straightforward, it does take time to get through everything, including walking from place to place.

The United Club was crowded, but did offer sufficient snack items and drink for the wait (United and Continental have flights going out at about the same time).  As i was going back on United, I was looking forward to First Class on the 767.  I had not flown these updated planes very much, and I think I do like the setup.  If you are in Business, they seat 2-2-2 (it's 2-4-2 on the 777 and 747).  In First, it's 1-1-1 with two rows.  The cabins are smaller than on the bigger planes, but the atmosphere is better because of it.

Once at IAD, I was able to use the International First Class Lounge, which was quiet the whole time and offers better food than the United Club.  I purposely built in a longer layover so that I took take advantage of the lounge and to provide a cushion against a delayed arrival back to the U.S.  It all worked out great.  It would have been perfect if I had not had to take Continental on the outbound trip, but I ultimately had no choice given the date I had selected.