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.

 

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