Minsk Airport Business Lounge review: a Priority Pass lounge

Flying Belavia, the national airline of Belarus, means arriving at the airport two hours before your flight. They’re firm about that no matter how short the flight. We arrived two-and-a-half hours early at the Minsk International Airport and found all Belavia desks closed, but sure enough, promptly two hours before our flight, a Belavia agent arrived and opened a counter. A line quickly formed. Since we were first in line, we were checked in and sans checked luggage in no time. With time to spare, we passed through security and headed upstairs to the Minsk Airport Business Lounge to which we have access via our Priority Pass Select cards (perks of both Chase Sapphire Reserve and AmEx Platinum).

We found an intriguing lounge, empty save for a single agent early on a Friday afternoon. Two massage chairs sat on an expanse of artificial turf spread just beyond two large, canopied daybeds of the kind you might expect to find in the beach area of a resort. Lounge chairs lined the faux lawn. Metal walls in this area and sleek lines on furniture and counters throughout give the lounge a futuristic look. I planted myself in one of the massage chairs for a goodly portion of our stay, but David thought they were too rough and opted for a lounge chair.

A buffet was set out in another wing of the L-shaped lounge just beyond the check in counter. Food tended toward local dishes, of cafeteria quality: sausage, fried meat and vegetables, soup, breakfast cereals and sweets. OK, but not great. Complementary coffee, soft drinks and water were also provided.

Free alcohol was limited to two kinds of Bobrov (a mass-produced Heineken beer) and local wine. Upgraded beer and wine were kept in a separate refrigerator near the check-in counter and cost extra. There were magazines and newspapers, but none in English.

View from a massage chair

We couldn’t access the free wi-fi with the directions provided on various signs because we had no way to receive the text message used to send a PIN code. The nice lady at the front counter solved the problem with access codes provided on scratch-off cards kept behind the front counter.

The Business Lounge was spotless, stylish and a good place to wait on a flight, if not exactly lavish. Just outside the Business Lounge, small 24-hour sleeping cubicles are available for rent. The Business Lounge is open 24-hours/day.

Sleeping cubicles at the Minsk Airport

Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, Laos [practical stuff]

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Roberto booked us another $6 taxi ride back to the Siem Reap airport for our evening flight to Luang Prabang, Laos. All went smoothly on exit, even though the passport control people were once again the crabbiest of any Cambodians we met. They did their job, just with an unfriendly attitude and lots of barked directions. Oh well.

Although the Siem Reap airport is relatively small, it’s modern and very nice. We wandered past lots of upscale duty free shops to find the Plaza Premium Club, a lounge covered by our Priority Pass “Select” memberships. Priority Pass “Select” is a perk of some of our premium cards that we’ve found to be almost useless in the U.S. (The “Select” version of this paid lounge membership is often excluded by American airline and airport lounges.), only moderately useful in Europe, but really great in Asia. Siem Reap was no exception.

We were quickly processed into the Plaza Premium Club, given two free drink vouchers and a free membership to the Plaza Premium Club effective outside the Priority Pass network. The lounge is elegant with attentive service and a nice buffet of Asian, Western and dessert items. There are newspapers in English as well as Asian languages, English-language television, lots of electrical outlets, private work carels, and free wi-fi.

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A sudden heavy downpour had us wondering if our flight would be delayed…and glad for the lounge access. When boarding was called on-time, our worries changed to whether we’d be drenched getting on the plane as it’s a walk-on tarmac. Happily, a bus was supplied, and the rain broke before we actually boarded, taking off only slightly late on our Vietnam Airlines flight.

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We arrived after dark at a much smaller airport in Luang Prabang, Laos. An escort walked us from the plane across the tarmac to where we rode an elevator to the 2nd floor immigration. Visa applications were on a table just to the left as we exited the elevator. Filling them out quickly, we beat 90% of our plane-mates to join the line for visas. Some snafu had things backed up for awhile, but once things were sorted out, the line moved very quickly. The visa is $35 for Americans, with the prices varying by country from $20 to $42. They prefer U.S. dollars. An extra $1 apiece bought a scan of our passport photos. Since we knew about this workaround, we didn’t bother bringing actual photos.

Luggage was waiting on the carrousel by the time we got through immigration. Just before we exited into the small main area of the airport, we bought a Lao SIM at a table set up by the door. We hadn’t planned to buy one for such a short stay, but at $9 for 4 days, we figured what the heck and picked one up, using , my phone to hotspot David when out of wi-fi range. Departing the arrival area (Customs forms were not collected.), we found the Taxi Service booth just a few steps away where we purchased a $7 coupon for a taxi to our hotel. All in all, a smooth and efficient entry.

 

Checking luggage on Korean Air at Seoul (train) Station

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Access to the airport train from Seoul Station is to the left of Entrance/Exit 3 in this photo

Korean Air offers a very convenient service (unavailable for code-share flights): You can check-in and check your luggage at Seoul Station before taking an express train to the airport. To do this, you need to arrive 3 hours before your flight. (This isn’t really a big deal since they ask you to arrive at the airport 2 hours early if you’re going to check luggage there, and the direct train from Seoul Station is about 45 minutes.)

The process at Seoul Station is as follows:
1. Arrive 3 hours early. (The location is by Entrance/Exit 3 of Seoul Station, down two floors via escalator and/or elevator.)
2. Buy a train ticket to the airport (either at a machine if you have cash or a local credit card, or at the office just by the machines–to your left as you face the machines–with a foreign credit/debit card). You MUST buy the train ticket first. You’ll need to show it at check-in. Choose a time at least 30 minutes in the future for your train ticket to allow time for check-in and immigration. If you should miss that train departure time, you can exchange your ticket for a later time at the office.
3. Check-in and check your luggage at the Korean Air check-in desk just as you would at the airport.
4. Go to immigration. This is located at a small office just beside the ticket office, at the entrance to the check-in desks. The process was very quick.
5. Take the elevator a short distance away to the train platform. The train is clean, comfortable, air conditioned and (like so many public places in Korea) offers free wi-fi.

At the airport, you take a special entrance, along with diplomats and crew, for those who have already passed through immigration. (There’s a convenient photo of this entrance taped to the Korean Air check-in desk.) Follow the signs to this “Designated Entrance” which was to our right just past a cell phone service shop as we exited airport security.

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Photos of entry points at airport taped to Korean Air check-in desk at Seoul Station

The system worked like a charm for us and our luggage was first off the plane when we arrived in Shanghai.

Montenegro, at long last!

I’d wanted to visit Montenegro when my boys and I had been in Dubrovnik back in 2003. It was so close!…but I’d decided against making what, in essence, would have been little more than a toe-touch in the country. Now, finally, I was going back and we had 5 nights in Kotor to explore this mountainous country. I was thrilled.

The getting there from Belgrade was both easy and fun. Pre-boarding, we enjoyed the amenities of the airport Business Club courtesy of our Priority Pass membership (an AmEx Platinum perk). Once aloft, we flew over the rugged mountains I’d originally thought of crossing by train, enjoying the views…and convinced we’d made the right decision to skip the train. The Air Serbia flight between Belgrade and Tivat, Montenegro, was barely more than an hour and as pleasant and efficient as our Ljubljana to Belgrade flight had been (with yet another “$0” free meal). Eventually, the mountains gave way, but only somewhat, to a spectacular Adriatic coastline.

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The Montenegran coast on the approach to the Tivat airport

We landed in the tiny Tivat airport and were met, as promised, by Marijana, the driver sent by our AirBnB host. Marijana led us to her own, small cluttered car. On the short drive to Kotor, she told us that she was a divorced mother of young children. She was interested to her what we thought of Belgrade, having lived there herself for years with her Serbian ex-husband. In her estimation, it was a great city and she missed it, but her children liked Kotor and and the cost-of-living was lower for her in Montenegro.

In no more than 15 minutes, we parked beside a canal just across from the walls of the old city of Kotor. Our host, Bojan, owned two apartments he rented on AirBnB on the 3rd floor. He listed the 2 together on AirBnB which explained my confusion as to the orientation of some of the rooms I’d seen online. Both are nice, new 2-bedroom apartments with balconies facing the old town. (While the living rooms were stylish and well-appointed in each, both apartments also had spartan upstairs bedrooms with ceilings that sloped laughably low. Bojan had been clear about that though, so it was no surprise. Just funny as David, who had the inside side of the bed and to stoop his 6’3″ low and scuttle, crab-like around the end of the bed to get out.) We were given our choice of apartments since we were the first to arrive and were soon happily settled.

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The roofs of Kotor old town. (Our apartment was in the 4th building to the right of the tall, modern building just off-center in the photo.)
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Crazy-low sloping ceiling in our bedroom

Now late afternoon, we set out to explore the old town on foot and find somewhere to eat. Old Kotor is achingly picturesque and its setting like something from a fairy tale with fortress walls running the length of the mountain at its back and and a magnificent, fjord-like bay before it.

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Old Kotor with the fortress and walls on the mountain beyond

One of my favorite food memories from the two weeks I spent with my sons in Croatia all those years ago was of perfectly grilled squid in Trogir. Happily, we found a pretty outdoor restaurant in old Kotor with great little grilled squid and the potato and chard side dish we’d found to be a staple in Belgrade. The restaurant was touristy, but not obnoxiously so, and the view of the fortress on the mountain looming above us was particularly beautiful as sunset gave way to dark. Lit up along the length of its walls, the fortress lay like a string of gleaming pearls on the ridge of the mountain. And, one of the joys of traveling off-season, we had the place almost to ourselves. In Montenegro, squid soon came to be our go-to meal: always good and, surprisingly, nearly always the cheap option. What an awesome country!

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Delicious grilled squid dinner in Old Kotor

 

April 7, 2016

Arriving in Belgrade, Serbia

David and I were both curious about Belgrade and I had my nose pressed to the window as we landed at Nikola Tesla Airport. We flew in over a sprawling metroplex constrained by the Danube River to the north and bisected by its tributary, the Sava River. More familiar looking structures gave way to massive, uniform blocks of high-rise housing as we neared touchdown.

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Belgrade, Serbia, with the Danube in the distance and the Sava forking in the foreground
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Huge housing blocks as we approach Nikola Tesla Airport

Nikola Tesla Airport felt enormous after little Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport. It was modern and bustling…with working free wi-fi! While we waited for our luggage, I texted with our AirBnB hostess, Vesna, via WhatsApp (invaluable for travel, expecially since nearly every AirBnB host I’ve dealt with has an account) and she promised her husband would be waiting when our cab dropped us off.

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A bit of whimsy at Nikola Tesla baggage claim

The day outside was sunny and unseasonably warm. Our taxi drove past many big modern buildings housing international tech companies before we passed a huge 6-story white building with two wings embracing a lovely modern fountain centered in a wide paved plaza. Although the place was enormous, it seemed deserted. When I asked our cab driver, he explained it was the “former congress of Yugoslavia.” I later learned the building is known as the “Palata Srbija” or “Serbian Palace.” We were to see several more abandoned and underutilized former Yugoslavian buildings in Belgrade and Montenegro and hear that same sense of regret for the loss of former glory or perceived glory. Despite what we were taught in the U.S., Tito and his era remain popular with many people in the former Yugoslavia. No doubt many others there feel differently, but that positive sentiment and nostalgia is an undeniable fact and something I’d been surprised by when my sons and I were in Croatia and Bosnia in 2003.

The modern part of Belgrade yielded to the old as we crossed over the Sava River. We turned north, coming to Kalmegdan park on our left. I made a mental note to return to check out the vending stalls visible from the road along the main path. Past the stone wall of the Belgrade Zoo sporting tiles representing the animals within, our cab turned into a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood. The buildings were unremarkable, many marked with graffiti, and a few downright dilapidated. I’d deliberately chosen an AirBnB apartment in the old part of the city, and was reassured by Vesna’s assurance that it was a family area and she and her family had lived there before moving to a bigger apartment to accommodate their growing family. Still, I felt a twinge of concern. David is such a sport about going along with nearly everything I suggest on our travels that I didn’t want him to be disappointed in my choice of lodging.

As promised, Vesna’s husband, Zoran, was waiting for us. Zoran led us to the apartment, gave us a brief run down of the area, handed over the keys, took our passports to register with the government–promising to return them within the hour, and we were on our own.

After a quick trip to a nearby grocery store/deli, we decided to enjoy the beautiful weather by lunching the balcony. Prices at the store were wonderfully cheap and about $5 fed both of us well. With two schools nearby, children on the playgrounds made a happy background noise.

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Lunch on the balcony
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View of the neighborhood from the balcony. If you look closely, you’ll see David crossing the road on a later solo trip to the store.

After lunch, it was time to explore. We walked up the street shown above towards the Danube. We crossed a pedestrian bridge over a wide span of old railroad tracks that ended in the common area of an uninspiring apartment complex. Not exactly picturesque. Beyond the apartments we finally arrived at the wide expanse of the Danube. Two wide, paved walkways ran parallel to each other and the river separated by a wall to keep back rising waters. A lone fisherman stood on the bank while swans swam nearby. We passed a few others out for a stroll, including a family of 3, the father of which wore a t-shirt depicting the US flag being pissed upon by that impish little boy often seen on pickup trucks at home. Hmm. If this guy was any indication, we might not be too popular in these parts.

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Strolling past a fisherman on the Danube in Belgrade

With no shade in sight, it was getting uncomfortably warm. I’d guessed we could get to Kalmegdan Park via the riverside, but it was becoming obvious I’d underestimated the hike and the heat. When we reached a sports complex, we gratefully bought ice cold bottled water from a vendor and gulped it down before continuing on to the park and the welcome refuge of scattered shade trees.

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Kalmegdan Park with vendor stalls in the background

Many people were enjoying the park this sunny Monday afternoon. We wandered over to the vendors I’d spied from the taxi and found much of the things on sale to be Russia-themed: Soviet-era trinkets, t-shirts depicting Putin and the like. From the park, we continued our ramble to Kneza Mihaila, the main pedestrian shopping street of Belgrade.

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Kneza Mihaila, the main pedestrian shopping street of Belgrade
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Cafés along Kneza Mihaila

Starting to droop after our early morning, flight, miles-long walk and the heat, we made our way home via a quick stop at the National Theater to see if last-minute tickets might be available (often a great deal in Eastern Europe), but no luck. We opted for deli dinner at home, a big advantage of apartment over hotel. Sometimes even dinner out is more than we we’re up for.

 

 

Air Serbia from Ljubljana to Belgrade

Serbia hadn’t originally been part of our plans, but it caught my attention when I stumbled across a really intriguing-looking train ride from Belgrade/Beograd to the Montenegran coast (which was, along with Slovenia, on my must-go-there list for this trip). Although further research convinced me we would not like the train ride after all. Reviews described spectacular views, but also an 11-hour trip with the potential for hours more in the event of flooding, uncomfortable seats, filthy bathrooms. Nope, we’re too old and too addicted to at least a moderate level of comfort for that. But, in the meantime, Belgrade had caught my imagination.

I discovered relatively cheap, one-way, 1 hour 20 minute flights between Ljubljana and Belgrade on Air Serbia, a new airline for me, but interesting. As a bonus, Air Serbia has recently partnered with Etihad, so we could scoop up a few Etihad Guest points while we were at it.

We dropped off the rent car with Sixt at the Ljubljana airport and made our way through the uncrowded and efficient departure procedure. We had a minor hitch when I realize I’d read an outdated weight max online (Amateur mistake. Shame on me!), and we had to do some quick reshuffling to accommodate the wine that we’d thought was no issue. Air Serbia used to have an extremely generous baggage max, but has now fallen in line with most airlines at 23kg per checked bag in economy. Thankfully, the nice Air Serbia lady cut us some slack and we didn’t have to jettison the wine. Hooray!

Our 2nd hitch came as we went through security and discovered that David and forgotten to pack his very favorite Laguiole corkscrew. He hustled back to the nice lady, threw himself on her mercy, fibbed a little about it being a family heirloom, and convinced her to retrieve his suitcase so he could stash the corkscrew. That was the first time I’ve ever seen that happen! So, we left Ljubljana with one last impression of friendly people.

The Ljubljana airport is small, but modern, clean and comfortable. It was not at all crowded and we had a leisurely wait and boarding. We were bused out onto the tarmac for boarding.

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Ljubljana departures waiting area

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The flight itself was pleasant albeit a little cramped. The only oddity, but in a nice way, was the meal service. When I bought our tickets online, I was given the option of a meal for “$0.” Hmm. Seemed like it must be a mistake, given that the flight was so short, but I figured “What the heck?” and signed up. Sure enough, shortly into the flight, the attendant offered us two small sandwiches saying we’d pre-ordered a meal. Not fine dining, but appreciated nonetheless.

April 4, 2016

Visitor SIM: get connected in Slovenia [also Predjama Castle & Piran]

SIM cards are always on my list of things to look into when I’m going to spend any time in a country. Overpriced roaming charges on my American AT&T account are out-of-the-question except for the occasional first text to a landlord, etc. (I absolutely detest being gouged.) I try to keep a French and a Belgian SIM card active, but with no non-roaming EU-wide SIM (yet), I often need a new SIM card when I’m in Europe. Options vary widely from country to country, but Eastern Europe can offer some great deals. Unfortunately, those great deals are often hard to take advantage of if you don’t know the language.

Slovenia has solved that problem with Visitor SIM. For a price, sure, but it’s not an unreasonable price, IMHO, given the convenience. https://www.visitorsim.si/default.aspx There are 3 options, and we chose the €20 for 15 days, 10GB data+ €5 of voice. You can use the data to make VoIP calls, Skype, etc., but we wanted a little easy talk time for local calls and it came in handy when we needed to rendezvous with our AirBnB landlord. The Visitor SIM cannot be mailed outside of Slovenia, so you need an address with someone present to receive the package. We weren’t sure we’d have that option with our AirBnB digs, so I opted for to have the card sent to the Ljubljana airport. I was told the card was would be waiting for us at Café Avioncek in the Arrivals area. While David checked out our Sixt rent car, I walked the 30 yards are so to the café, gave my name to someone behind the counter, and was back in no time with the SIM card. (You’re supposed  to provide ID, but no one asked.) The card installed, without problem, on my Android phone and we were up and running, Google Maps and all.

We spent the next days exploring Slovenia and found Internet coverage to be good in most places, if a little spotty in some very rural areas. I can’t say enough good things about Slovenia. I’d been wanting to visit for many years, and we found it to be beautiful, amazingly clean (Ljubljana has been named Green Capital of Europe for 2016), and very accessible. Lots of people spoke excellent English in Ljubljana and we found good English most places save for near the Eastern border with Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat!

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Lovely Ljubljana
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Riverside café in Ljubljana. Slovenians love their cured meats!

One of the great advantages of a small country. You can visit a castle built into a mountain in the morning and be eating super-fresh seafood on the coast by lunch:

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Predjama Castle
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Piran, on Slovenia’s small coastline on the Gulf of Trieste
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Piran bounty

On the drive back from Piran to Ljubljana, we made a quick detour out to see the salt-pans at Sečovlje Salina Nature Park. It’s only a short drive out of town and worth a look even if, like us, you don’t have the time or inclination to take a tour or visit the Lepa Vida thalasso spa located in the park. http://www.portoroz.si/en/experience/natural-attractions/secovlje-salt-pans Salt has been harvested from here since at least the Middle Ages.

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Sečovlje salt-pans beyond the canal

March 30- April 1, 2016