Notes from plane seats and the odd airport lounge part ii / Back in wintery Tasmania

Published: September 2nd 2016
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Today we were leaving Mexico City and returning to Australia.

We left our incredible apartment at the Red Tree House in Condesa around 11:45am, jumped into a taxi and sped towards the Benito Juarez Mexico City International Airport, arriving at 12:15pm. After trying and failing a self-check-in, we checked in at the counter and made our way through to the gate lounge. Ren picked up a pair of Frida Kahlo Converse sneakers, and we used our last remaining pesos on a blue and white ceramic plate decorated with the ubiquitous Day of the Dead skull.

We boarded our flight to Los Angeles at 3:30pm. I was one of six passengers from the entire flight to be randomly selected for a security check. It wasn’t too bad, although having to virtually take my top off while people were boarding beside me was a little on the embarrassing side. I could feel a degree of judgement as people walked past. I’m sure they were thinking “I wonder why he’s being searched and we’re not?” I know I would have! The four hour flight was reasonably comfortable, and our ham, cheese and salsa croissants were OK. We flew over vast expanses of northern Mexican desert on our way to Los Angeles, with spectacular mountain ranges jutting up from the dry, red earth. It is a truly desolate terrain.

We landed at Los Angeles International Airport at 5:30pm (local time) and breezed through border security and immigration. We’d heard stories of Los Angeles being a difficult and chaotic airport, but our experience was the opposite – it was one of the easier airports we’ve had to negotiate. We sat down to a Mexican snack (guacamole and salsa) at the Border Grill in the food hall, and refreshed with a mint, lime and soda and an agua fresca (passionfruit, mango and pineapple).

We made our way to the gate lounge and settled in for a few hours, catching up on our travel notes and preparing for the gruelling 14 hour flight to Sydney. We boarded our plane and left Los Angeles at 10:30pm. This was to be a difficult flight, and possibly the worst long haul flight in all our travels. The flight itself was packed, and we found ourselves trapped in a window and middle seat, as a large guy sat in the aisle seat and promptly fell asleep. He was friendly and affable, but I hated having to wake him every time I needed to clamber out. The plane – a Boeing 747 – was very old and very tired, and we overheard one of the crew saying it was about to be decommissioned to make way for an Airbus A380. There was hardly any leg room, the seats were uncomfortable, the inflight entertainment was faulty and the service was poor (or, to be more accurate, non-existent). For example, I had a plate of food left on my lap tray for five hours as I tried to sleep.

I should make two disclaimers here... (1) I wasn’t feeling well; and (2) I was comparing the plane and its crew to our incredible experience on the Airbus A380 on our outbound flight from Sydney to Fort Worth (Dallas).

One last point, and I shouldn’t be surprised by this – the in-flight food was terrible. We both ordered the Hungarian beef goulash with roast potatoes and mixed vegetables for dinner, and while the beef was edible, the potatoes and vegetables had been re-heated within an inch of their lives. A steaming hot (barely edible) pizza was served in darkness during the night, and by the time breakfast arrived I was in no mood for eating (although I did manage some yoghurt, fruit and half a muffin). Grumbles! 😞

We landed at Sydney Airport around 6:30am (local time), having lost the best part of a day travelling forward in time. We used the ‘biometric’ function of our e-Passports for the first time, picked up our packs and painlessly made our way through security. We caught a bus from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 and made a bee line to Hungry Jacks for a sausage and egg muffin and coffee. It was a very welcome breakfast.

We made our way to the gate lounge and settled in to read Australian news stories for the first time in six weeks – Queensland had won the first State of Origin match, everyone was complaining about umpiring in the Australian Football League and the Daily Telegraph was slamming Green policies and politicians – nothing really changes!

In our jetlagged state, we’d sub-consciously stopped listening to the flight announcements bellowing through the airport’s speaker system, and this almost caused us to miss our final flight. We noticed a long queue of people had been boarding a flight at our gate lounge, when suddenly it occurred to us that it was our flight to Hobart! We grabbed our hand luggage, scurried on board, left Sydney Airport at 9:30am and landed in Hobart Airport at 11:20am.

We drove into Hobart to collect Mia (the cat) from the Cat Centre, dropped into the supermarket to pick up some essential supplies and then headed home, eventually pulling into our driveway at 2pm. My first task was to start a fire in the wood heater, as we’d arrived home to a very cold winter’s day – it didn’t get past 8 degrees! We spent the rest of the afternoon cleaning the house and unpacking. We were both desperate for a shower, but the hot water cylinder needed about four hours to warm up. Jasper and Oliver (the kelpies) were dropped off at 3:30pm, and it was so good to see them after 43 days. We finally showered and were able to relax at 6pm – we were home, and Jasper, Oliver and Mia were all curled up in front of the fire with us. 😊

The taxi to Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport was quick and painless. We were flying with Aeromexico from Mexico City to Los Angeles, and then with Qantas from Los Angeles to Sydney and onto Hobart. After the vagueness about our bags on the trip over, we were again unsure if our bags would be tagged all the way home. It was a little concerning that the staff at check-in wasn’t too sure either. After much scrutiny of the computer system, our bags were checked through to Hobart, but we still had to pick them up and walk them through security in Los Angeles and through customs in Sydney. We tried not to be too concerned that something so routine had been so puzzling to the airline staff.

After we checked in, we wandered around the shops looking for a music shop to buy a Lila Downs CD that Fernando had played during our ceviche lunch in Mazunte. Even though we didn’t find a music shop, we found an outlet for Museo de Arte Popular, and it was fabulous. We bought a small blue and white pottery plate with a skull which was unmistakeably Mexican, and I also fell in love with a pair of limited edition Frida Kahlo converse shoes. I see the irony in the world loving Frida’s distinctive and unique style so much that her face and art works have now been appropriated for everything from bags, t-shirts, cushions, socks and indeed shoes. From what I’ve read of her, I think she would have hated that she has become a brand, and that her Trust has partnered with companies like Converse, Zara etc., but I suppose it all points to the fact that she is a much loved and treasured figure.

The flight from Mexico City on Aeromexico was straightforward, apart from the arctic conditions on board. However, my cold and flu morning tablet was still working, so I managed to sleep for most of the four hour flight. For the rest of the time I reflected on the last six weeks of travel and the experiences we’d had in that time.

For us, the three countries of Guatemala, Belize and Mexico had been intoxicating travel destinations. This part of Central America really was the land of archaeological treasures, energetic cities, vibrant cultures, delicious food and welcoming locals that we’d been promised. With jungles, mountains, volcanoes, beaches, reefs and caves to explore; and museums, markets, cafes and bars to visit; I can say without a doubt that we had some truly remarkable travel experiences.

Well back to our flight… we’d been dreading our transit stop at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), but I have to say upfront that it was nowhere near as bad as I had read or been told it would be. However, I know I’m not the first person (and definitely won’t be the last) to be completely and utterly perplexed at the way the airport is structured. When we landed at LAX we saw the saga of multiple terminals with no secure access between them, and then understood why it’s rated as the world’s fourth worst airport to transit through. We went through immigration relatively easily, picked up our bags (that were tagged through to Hobart), walked straight through customs, and then noticed a small room that had a ‘connecting baggage’ sign. A guy scanned our bags and confirmed that we were in the right place to drop off transit luggage… and off they went down a conveyor belt.

There was no signage to help with finding our departure terminal, so after getting a small map from the very friendly Information Services guy, we navigated ourselves from Terminal 2 to the Tom Bradley International Terminal. We essentially left one airport, walked outside, crossed the road and entered another airport. What were they thinking when they planned this place? My inner OCD/efficiency pedant was mentally listing a thousand ways in which everything could be streamlined.

Even though the transit process was cumbersome, it had been easy and stress-free… until we went to check-in for our next flight and the girl at the Qantas check-in counter wondered why we had no luggage, and then looked at our luggage tags and asked where Hobart was. Crap. We laughed nervously and explained the process we’d just been through, and she looked at us blankly. Okaaay. Anyway, there wasn’t much we could do but cross all our fingers that we’d see our bags when we landed in Sydney.

We certainly didn’t need every minute of the four and a half hour transit time to switch terminals as we had been told we would, nor did we experience the long lines or rude and obnoxious airport staff we’d been warned about. However, I will still be looking at an alternative route to transiting through LAX in the future. As one of the busiest airports in the world, I thought they would have been running more efficient operations, with better trained staff.

I know airport food prices can be outrageous, but I think LAX is looking to outdo all other international airports. After walking the length of the terminal, we decided on a Mexican place called Border Grill and shared a surprisingly good guacamole, salsa and chips. I had a mango, pineapple and passionfruit agua fresca, while Andrew had a mint cooler (which was basically a virgin mojito).

While we sat at our lounge waiting for our flight to Sydney, for the first time in six weeks we were once again in the midst of Australian accents. To say our flight to Sydney was horrendous would be an understatement. Firstly, we’d been so absorbed with our trip that we’d forgotten to double check the seats allocated to us by our travel agent. Bad mistake. He knew our seat preferences, but had still allocated us the window and middle seat in a set of three – which we both hate for any flight longer than three hours, as we get trapped in by the person sitting in the aisle. It didn’t help that we were surrounded by a big group of large men (who looked like ex-rugby players who had gone to fat). The guy sitting next to me wasn’t the largest of them by any means, and he was actually quite lovely and tried not to invade my space, but whenever he fell asleep, he fell into me. At one point I woke up from sleeping with my head on my tray table, sat back and crunched his arm (which had encroached into my seat). He felt really bad, and I felt bad feel for him too! The seats in that 747 were really quite tiny.

The plane was one of the oldest 747s I’ve been on, and I overheard one of the cabin crew saying to another passenger (by way of apology because his entertainment unit wasn’t working) that the plane was on its second last trip before being retired. Oh great.

They couldn’t get the cooling/heating right for the entire flight (it was either sweltering or arctic), the seats were falling apart, the whole entertainment system had to be rebooted twice, the window next to Andrew rattled for the entire 14.5 hour journey, Andrew’s reading light didn’t work, my entertainment remote was stuck firmly in the armrest, the food was beyond awful, and the staff were the most uninterested and unresponsive Qantas crew we’d had in a long time. I would say it was the worst international flight I have ever been on. 😞

Anyway, it was such a relief when we finally landed in Sydney and disembarked that awful plane. We cleared immigration quite quickly by using the smartgate booths that scan passports and faces. I‘d been hanging out for my old-school 10 year passport to expire, and it did before this trip. I received my new e-passport just before we left, and I was so excited to use it for the first time!

Joyfully, our bags showed up on the carousel. I was so happy about getting our bags that I didn’t care that the queues for customs were seriously long and uncontrolled. For once we had nothing to declare apart from the fact that we’d recently travelled through Central America… but Mexico wasn’t on the ‘last six day alert list’ for whatever they were looking for, so out we went.

As our bags had been tagged through to Hobart, we walked to a Qantas transfer desk and rechecked our luggage through before waiting in a cow shed of a hot room for the shuttle bus to the domestic terminal. As I mentioned in our outward bound Notes blog, I’m not a fan of Sydney Airport.

The shuttle bus didn’t arrive for ages and people with early flights were starting to panic. We thought it was fair enough for them to go to the head of the queue if they were at risk of missing their flight, and even encouraged two young guys who were too embarrassed to jump the queue to do so. At this point two older women in the queue started yelling out that there was a queue and everyone should wait their turn etc. etc. Hilariously, two minutes later one of those women decided she would jump the queue, and when she walked up to the guy scanning boarding passes, he sent her straight back, as her flight, like ours, wasn’t for another two hours. What a selfish cow! Even though it didn’t make any difference to her flight situation, she would rather people missed their flights than go ahead of her into the shuttle bus.

Even after our breakfast on the plane, we were still hungry. We decided to have sausage and egg muffins from Hungry Jacks, as we had plenty of time before our flight. It tasted like gourmet food compared to the white and grey slop Qantas had tried to pass off as eggs and sausages. 😉

We usually love the airport and plane travel aspects of our trips and look forward to it, but a combination of small but unfortunate issues had turned this return stint to Australia into one we weren’t very happy about. On the plus side, it made us appreciate all the big things that had worked perfectly.

We then sat in the gate lounge and began our plan of attack for everything we had to do when we got home… pick Mia up, do some grocery shopping, ring the kennels to get the doggies dropped off, work through the list of getting the house back to a liveable state, start doing loads (and loads and loads) of laundry, and finally turning our minds to work and prioritising work tasks.

It had been nearly 33 hours door to door from when we left our hotel in Mexico City to when we drove into our driveway. Well, 34 hours if we took into account the extra hour to pick Mia up and do some food shopping. We felt strangely full of energy, and we were so pleased that we actually managed to do absolutely everything on our list for the day.

Well, it was good to be back, and fabulous beyond words to be surrounded by our little furry ones in our beloved schoolhouse. However, re-entry to reality was a bit harsh and tiring – the mail from our post office box only took about an hour to sort out, but my inbox with 849 unread emails took a very long two days to get on top of.

We’d arrived back in winter and had been dreading the cold. The sun was out when we landed, but that didn’t last long, and we were hit with three days of fierce wind and rain storms which made us miss the sun and warmth of Mexico very much. The fluey colds we had started getting at the end of the trip got worse, and we were both a bit sick for about a week – which certainly didn’t help with the post-holiday blues.

On that first night back home, as we sat down with a drink in front of the fire, we began discussing our travel shortlist for our next trip. 😊

As always, we will gather our thoughts and write a summary blog of our trip very soon.


3rd September 2016
trip presents :)

Airlines nightmares, but all ends well!
Flying used to be so much fun, but less so these days: Qantas Airlines--where's Hobart--really? I always fly out of LAX which has been easy (also fine art there), but so sorry it was geographically challenging--it's grown lots beyond its original, logical layout. The DF airport has a fabulous extension of the Anthropological Museum, just in case you get stranded there again. I imagine you and your little beloveds were thrilled to see each other, but almost a thousand emails--yikes! I'm not sure where you might visit next in South America, but I've met Frenchies heading to the French South Pacific who've flown to Chile with a stop (might as well stay) on Easter Island. Might be more direct you those of us in the Southern Hemisphere. Hope you're soon enjoying a fine, warm spring, and I love that you loved my Latino backyard!
3rd September 2016
trip presents :)

Re: Airlines nightmares, but all ends well!
When Qantas is good, it's really good; but when it's crap, it's really crap. Might have to make sure we only fly on their newer planes from now on, as they seem to put better crew on those ones! Yes a few airlines fly from Aus to Auckland to Chile, which is an option for South American travel. Spring started well, but slipped back into winter today...slowly but surely heading towards summer though :)
3rd September 2016

The long journey home.
Thanks guys, after reading your blog on how horrible your flight home was, we have decided not to return or if we do we will do it on foot. We are just starting to think of our return and how we are going to do it but I know we cannot pass through LAX (Iran Visa stamp in our passport), or perhaps ever want to. It is such a great feeling returning to your 4 legged children, and it's what males an end of a trip so special. I have to ask the inevitable question "where to next?" would love to see a short list. Thanks again for the great read and getting us to Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.
3rd September 2016

Re: The long journey home.
Oh wow, you said the 'r' word...hope it feels ok to be discussing the return trip. We are struggling a bit with the shortlist this time, it went down to two and now back up to three again! Will message you soon with all the details. We really really miss our little furry ones when we travel, and I guess you are missing your furry and feathered ones too :)
3rd September 2016

Least favourite airline ...
Hi Ren & Andrew, As an Aussie, almost ashamed to say that Qantas (or "Squashus", as a Canadian friend of ours calls them) is our least favourite airline these days. Time was - whenever we travelled, if Qantas went there, that would be always be our first choice. Unfortunately, not any more and hasn't been for quite a long time now because of several long-haul flights in the past with terrible service, cramped conditions and cabin crew who really weren't all that interested, and with serving you, seeming like an imposition. Such a pity, as they used to be such a great airline with great service. All that aside, always enjoy your blogs - thank you. Welcome home!! :) Jan
4th September 2016

Re: Least favourite airline ...
Thanks Jan! We boycotted Qantas for a few years too (especially during the pay dispute with pilots), but they have been pretty good on a few recent trips - including the trip over to Guatemala six weeks before this horrible one (and they're definitely our airline of choice for domestic travel). I think I'll have to book all future Qantas flights based on more information on the type of plane being flown. Thanks for reading and commenting, and hope you are both well :)
3rd September 2016

Welcome Home!
What a lovely, cosy image to round-off what sounded like an awful journey back: fire on, with a drink in hand and a cat and two dogs for company :D That 14.5-hour haul from LA to Sydney must have been awful, and I'm still trying to get my head around that International Date Line thing, having never crossed it before - that you lose a whole day, wow! But I can totally relate to the sheer joy of being able to join the e-Passport queue. If you're interested, I think New York's Newark Airport is another one to avoid, if you're not a fan of truly long lines, rude staff and unclear signage... But anyway, what a great read still (I think as I can relate to all your travel stresses and joys here), and welcome back!
4th September 2016

Re: Welcome Home!
Thanks Alex! Yes that International date line thing messes with your head, but it worked in our favour on the way over to Guatemala - swings and roundabouts :) Andrew has had an e-passport for three years but has lined up with me because of my chip-less passport - so it was seriously excellent to avoid the long queues this time! We will definitely keep Newark Airport issues in mind, thanks for the tip :)
4th September 2016

I live in southern California and can attest to the extraordinarily poor design of LAX. I can almost see the point of having the International Terminal in a separate building apart from the rest of the airport, but sheesh - put up some signs! Also - to you friend with the comment about not being able to transit LAX with an Iranian stamp - the stamp alone will not prohibit you from transiting in the US. You are not eligible for the visa waiver program, and security might ask you a few questions, but you won't be denied entry for the stamp. Lonely Planet has a post about this, and you might want to check the US State Dept. website.
5th September 2016

Our walk to the International Terminal wasn't helped by messy construction all over the place (which hopefully, will eventually make things better), and airport staff in fork lifts who had no regard for the safety of people walking along the footpath! I will message Shelley and Scott your info on LAX - thanks. Hope you are well :)
11th September 2016

Sad flights home and disappointment abounds
I know airlines have self-imposed restricted budgets these days for food but I'm always puzzled because they brag about the chefs they have hired. I feel certain they could do much better even on their limited budget. They should give us a go at it. Let's put Brendan on it and no one would complain in the future. Sorry to hear you were on the last flights of a plane rather than the first flights of the new plane. A good trip you've had. Thanks for taking us along. Eager to hear what you decide for next year. I wouldn't be surprised if a return trip to Mexico wasn't being considered as you will be out of Mescal by then.
11th September 2016

Re: Sad flights home and disappointment abounds
I agree about the airline food Merry, especially when the same airline served us reasonable/good food on the way we know they can do it when they want to. And yes, Brendan would do a fabulous job of it! Thanks for following our trip, we really did have a fabulous time. The shortlist for next year is still being discussed, and Mexico did get a mention :)

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