18 December 2011

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.

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