Saturday, November 13, 2010

Outward Bound

After hydrating and packing my bags, I caught BART to San Francisco Airport to take my overnight flight to Sydney, Australia. Since coach food can be pretty depressing, I stopped at Ebisu sushi bar for a light but tasty meal of my favorite fishy bits. I wasn't the only person with that idea: at least five other people who would be on my flight were also there.

After exchanging $100 US into Australian dollars so that I'd be sure to have some cash until I could find the appropriate Australian ATM, I met up with my mileage running companion in the United Red Carpet lounge. We downed a couple of free drinks (made from el cheapo booze) and then boarded. My friend has a lot of experience in the flying-for-fun-and-profit game, and he wisely had reserved a seat in an exit row. Despite my initial inclination to book into Economy Plus, I had chosen the "middle" seat next to him in the back of the bus. Once on board I was really glad I had done this, because I realized I could get up at any time and not have to climb over the person sitting on the other side of me.

The plane was broiling hot when we boarded, but got quite cool after take-off, making me very happy that I'd both worn a lightweight sweater and had brought an extra pashmina-style wrap.

My husband had booked my ticket for me, and suggested I order a vegetarian meal. In his experience, the special-ordered meals are superior to what everyone else is served. United has a new policy of offering a vegetarian option to everyone on international flights, and I was interested to see how the meals would compare.

When my meal arrived I was extremely glad I had enjoyed a nice sushi snack prior to boarding. The main dish was nearly unidentifiable. There was stewed fruit served in the same container-tray as something that may have been couscous, with about a tablespoon of chopped mixed veggies in one corner. In the dim cabin light it looked like a fruit crisp gone very very wrong. This was accompanied by a hard individually-wrapped dinner roll, a mini-tub of margarine, a small salad, and a bag of sugar-free pecan cookies.

Meanwhile, the general public was offered baked ziti. They got real butter, and a pre-packaged fudge brownie for dessert. The ziti tasted like an over-microwaved tv dinner, but at least it looked and smelled like a real food item. I have a feeling I got a "vegan" (no animal products) meal, and it was just sad. The lesson learned here is that if you're a lacto-ovum vegetarian (you eat dairy and eggs), then don't bother with the special meal on an international flight with United. Except then they screw you on breakfast, because both of the regular breakfast offerings had sausage right in the dish touching everything else. I guess the real lesson is don't count on United being able to feed you decently, special meal order or not.

The bad food was the most interesting thing about the whole 13 1/2 hour flight. We each took a time-released Ambien and snoozed our way through about six or seven hour's worth of flying time.

Interesting Info:

BART has cheap service from downtown San Francisco to San Francisco International Airport. It costs $8.05 each way, which is 1/4th the rate of a cab. Figure 45 minutes for the trip, once you actually get on a train.

Ebisu sushi, a branch of the well-loved San Francisco Inner Sunset establishment, is located in the International Terminal's food court, right past the end of the United check-in counters. Eat a good meal here and you won't care so much about the slop served in flight.

Different US-based banks have agreements with overseas banks that eliminate ATM fees. Check your bsnk's web site for details. I use Bank of America at home, and so can use WestPac for free in Australia. My friend is a Citibank client, which has a similar arrangement with St. George's Bank.

The United Red Carpet Club lounge is members-only. If you're really dying to get in, you can usually purchase a day pass at the door. It's probably not worth it--the people who join are usually very frequent fliers who like to use it to avoid the rest of the usual airport chaos. If you really just want a drink, there are better bars in the gate areas.

Economy Plus is the front section of United's coach cabin. Depending on plane, it gives 3" to 5" of extra leg room over regular Economy. If you are a Premiere-level or higher member of United's Mileage Plus program, you can reserve a seat there for free. Otherwise, you can "opt up" for a fee after purchasing your ticket. The fee depends on the flight, and is higher for long-haul flights than for shorter hops.

No comments: