Flight 2/15: San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York

This post is part of the Ultimate Flight Marathon multi-part series, where I review each of the 15 flights I take during 3.5 weeks of intense traveling.

Airline: American Airlines

Date: May 7, 2016

Type of plane: Boeing 737-823

Duration of the flight: 4 hours

Delays: None

General info: As everyone knows, American Airlines is one of the three major legacy carriers of the United States. From my experience, many of their planes tend to be on the older side so things like personal screens are a luxury you shouldn’t expect to get. This flight landed at New York’s JFK. Being a thrifty traveler, I usually get to the city by taking the B15 bus to New Lots Avenue and by hopping on the 3 train from there. This way the airport trip costs just $2.75! The savings from the AirTrain might be just $5 at a time, but given how many times I do this airport trip every year, it all adds up. Also, taking the bus directly to the 3 train often ends up being the fastest option for me anyway.

What was special about this plane: Nothing really. It’s the basic Boeing that is used on tons of American Airlines flights around the United States. However, what was special before this flight was that I was all alone while clearing US immigration in Puerto Rico as I was the first to exit my plane from Guadeloupe and I guess no other planes had landed the same time. It was amazing not to have to stand in line for an hour, as is usual when entering the US via bigger airports (here’s looking at you, Miami!). However, I did encounter a slight delay after the customs guy asked me if I had any checked bags. When I answered no, he said I had been selected for a “random inspection” and had to step aside for a thorough bag check-up and questioning. How random can it be when I was the only person around? Haha. But somehow it seems unfair that I constantly get singled out because of traveling with only hand luggage. 😦 So this inspection took another 5-10 minutes, but overall it was a very smooth airport transfer, and flight as well.

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It was such a pretty day to be flying over the Caribbean.

Highlight: It was a really beautiful day and the clouds were floating super high in the sky. This meant that we flew below them instead of above, and I had an unobstructed view of the flat-looking blue sea under us. It looked really pretty. It also made me feel a little weak in the knees to see how incredibly high we were. This is a sensation that I don’t get a lot, as I’m usually not afraid of heights.

What I would do differently next time: I would have earplugs handy. The TV screens in the middle of the plane started blasting at full volume at one point, and I was worried we would be subjected to this noise for the duration of the trip. Luckily the TV went back to silent after the annoying ads ended.

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There’s the communal TV, blasting as loud as ever during commercials.

Food served: We got a bag of the savory snack mix and a choice of a non-alcoholic beverage. Luckily I wasn’t hungry at all, as I had just visited the Global Lounge at the San Juan airport. I’m happy to report that Global Lounge’s food offerings have improved since my last visit in November! Instead of just cereal and crackers, this time they had actual ham and cheese sandwiches, veggies and dip, and even a yummy-looking fruit salad. Sadly looks can be deceiving: the fruits tasted old already, so I decided it was best not to finish the bowl I took.

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It looked good… but didn’t taste so fresh at all.

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The Global Lounge is one of my favorite lounges due to its simple but trendy decor.

 

Turbulence: At first the flight was super smooth, but then there was intense turbulence for 10 minutes. It made me think twice about undertaking this Ultimate Flight Project. :/ No matter how much I fly, I have yet to feel comfortable during turbulence.

Price: As I explained during my first flight review, this was the second flight of the two that made up my one-way ticket from Guadeloupe to NYC. The total price of this ticket was $220, which I covered by using Thank You points from Citibank.

Miles earned: 1,597 miles, deposited into the American Airlines AAdvantage program. These are the final days for me to utilize the American Airlines program though: I’m switching my miles-accruing over to the Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan soon. This is because in mid-June AA is changing their award program to be revenue-based (following in the footsteps of Delta and United). That doesn’t work well for people like myself who tend to fly long distances for fairly cheap fares. Under the new system I would only get 1,100 AA points for this trip that currently gives me 1,900 miles. On longer trips this difference in earned miles is even more striking. Boohoo!

Overall experience: It was OK.

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Flight 1/15: Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, to San Juan, Puerto Rico

As I promised, here starts my review series of the flights that make up the Ultimate Flight Marathon (i.e. my personal Amazing Race).

Airline: Seaborne Airlines

Date: May 7, 2016

Type of plane: Saab 340 TurboProp

Duration of the flight: 1.5 hours

Delays: We did leave about 10 minutes behind schedule, but it didn’t impact our arrival time. However, it was a bit nerve-wracking that boarding only started after we were supposed to have taken off already (as I knew I had a tight connection in San Juan).

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General info: Seaborne is a tiny Caribbean airline that partners with American Airlines and Jet Blue. Therefore your e-ticket may say American Airlines (as mine did) but rest assured – your aircraft will be much more exotic than “plane” ol’ American (pun intended). On the route from Guadeloupe to Puerto Rico, Seaborne operates a tiny 30-seater twin-engine propeller plane, Saab 340 TurboProp. It’s definitely not the most modern aircraft out there – Wikipedia tells me that the production of this plane type ended in 1998.

What was special about this plane: The overhead bins are so small that a regular carry-on suitcase won’t fit up there. Therefore the staff collected bigger carry-ons from people as they were stepping up to the aircraft, and stashed them in the plane’s luggage compartment. Folks got them back as soon as we landed in San Juan. Luckily my backpack was small enough to fit in the tiny space we were allotted. (Yay for packing light!)

Highlight: It was entertaining to watch the lone flight attendant, Julio, trying to play several roles simultaneously and to try not to hit his head onto the low roof.

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What I would do differently next time: The whole left side of the plane is made up of single seats, so everyone got a window seat – except for me! I managed to be assigned the only window seat onboard that didn’t have a window. Lame. So next time I’ll ask for a seat that is not 2A. I had to gawk over at my neighIMG_7446.jpgbor’s window to steal at least a small glimpse of the pretty islands of the Caribbean we flew over.

Food served: We got two bags of pretzels and a choice of mango/guava juice and water. Not shabby for such a short hop across the pond!

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Turbulence: In smaller planes you tend to feel every twist and turn. From that perspective the ride was exceptionally smooth. There was practically no shaking at all – just a tad at the landing time.

Price: This was the first flight of the two flights that made up my one-way ticket from Guadeloupe to NYC. The total price of this ticket would have been $220, but I paid it with the awesome Thank You points from Citibank. As long as you have the Citi Prestige credit card, these points offer great value if you are booking an American Airlines flight or a codeshare (which is what this one was). Yet another reason to love that card (getting access to airport lounges is another!). Of course I would have much rather taken one of the cheap and direct Norwegian Air flights from Gwada to NYC, but unfortunately those flights aren’t running again until November.

Miles earned: Not a whole lot – I earned just 331 miles, which I deposited into the American Airlines AAdvantage program.

Overall experience: Just OK.

The crazy, wacky Ultimate Flight Marathon

Happy May everyone!

As I write this, I’m about to embark on an epic journey – a dream trip to New Caledonia. Where exactly is that, you may wonder… Well, it’s a French island, or actually an archipelago, located in the Pacific Ocean. Geographically, it’s about as far from France as possible. It’s also pretty darn far from my home base of Guadeloupe and the Caribbean in general. But it’s only a couple of hours from Sydney, Australia, by plane.

The idea for this trip came from my French boyfriend. He visited New Caledonia 15 years ago and considers it the most beautiful place he has ever seen. We’ve wanted to take a trip there for a while already, and now it’s finally happening!

This is where the Ultimate Flight Marathon comes into the picture: to get from the Caribbean to New Caledonia’s capital of Noumea and back, we will be taking a total of 15 flights over the next 3.5 weeks. Yikes. This includes flights with 11 different airlines. The shortest flight is just 1.5 hours, and the longest one over 13 hours.

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This photo is from my home beach of La Datcha in Guadeloupe – I’m having a hard time believing that New Caledonia can beat this view! But let’s see.

To make this gargantuan air journey a bit more exciting, I decided to review each flight segment and airline on this blog as we move along. I will be commenting on things like on-time departure and arrival times, food served onboard, possible turbulence and other trouble, as well as my own state of mind after all that flying. This should help you decide if this type of an Ultimate Flight Marathon might also be your cup of tea. (Or it might encourage you to pay whatever is needed to get a direct flight to your destination instead!)

I’ll also make a note of the cost of each flight and tell you the airline miles earned and the airline programs I used. I may also talk about things we did during layovers, as well as the airport lounges on various airports (as I’m a happy owner of the Priority Pass lounge membership program due to my awesome Citi Prestige credit card).

Lounge

This is the Global Lounge in the airport of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s one of my favorite lounges as it’s so swanky and stylish! However, the food options are very basic, as is customary for American lounges.

In a way this project will be similar to Quality Hunters 2, a Finnair project I took part in back in 2011. During that project I had 13 flights over seven weeks – and I thought that was a lot! But now I’m setting off to break my own record with these 15 flights. Taking the duration of the trip into consideration, on average we will be taking one flight every two days between early May and June 2.

With 11 different airlines being a part of my Ultimate Flight Marathon, the chances are high that you will find your favorite airline mentioned among those (or alternatively you may learn more about an obscure airline you didn’t even know existed). The blog entries for this Ultimate Flight Marathon can thus serve as a helpful reference point to anyone contemplating flying some of the same segments or airlines in the future.

Here’s the route on the outward trip:

Guadeloupe – Puerto Rico – New York- Tokyo – Bangkok – Singapore – Perth – Sydney – New Caledonia

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And here’s how we’ll be coming back:

New Caledonia – Auckland – Sydney – Bangkok – Tokyo – Chicago – Montreal – Guadeloupe

Now, I know what you must be thinking: There is no way this is the most direct way from the Caribbean to the Pacific! And you are right – it’s most certainly not. The most direct way for us would have been Guadeloupe – San Juan/Miami- Los Angeles – Sydney – New Caledonia. But that’s also a really expensive way – about $2,500-$4,000 roundtrip.

By transiting through Asia and Australia and by making use of some great flight deals and utilizing a bit of frequent flier miles, we were able to get the total cost of this dream trip down to less than $1,000 per person. This way we will also be able to visit some old favorite cities of mine in Asia and Australia during our respective one-day layovers. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing how my Aussie home of Perth has changed since I lived there back in 2006! It will also be great to catch up with friends in various friends along the way.

(Note: You can even get to New Caledonia for a couple of hundred dollars, if you happen to have access to a stash of Air France miles. It costs just 60,000 miles and around $300 in taxes to fly to a roundtrip to Noumea from Los Angeles, and you’ll get to pass by Sydney too. However, award availability was scarce for our wanted dates, so we skipped this opportunity.)

Without further ado – welcome onboard the Ultimate Flight Marathon! Hope you stay tuned for updates on how the trip is progressing, and feel free to send any tips my way with regards to New Caledonia or any of the cities we’ll be visiting on the way!

 

Map of Guadeloupe

Are you wondering where each island is located in Guadeloupe?

Here’s a handy map of the “continent” of Gwada and all the outer islands that we drew for my e-book. As you see, Grande Terre and Basse Term form the wings of “the Butterfly Island.”

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If you are looking for a detailed offline map to download on your phone or tablet before your trip, check out the free maps at http://maps.me.

 

Guadeloupe’s jewel is disappearing

One of my favorite places in Guadeloupe is Ilet Caret. It’s a tiny sand bank in the middle of the Caribbean Sea that has really clear water and a couple of palm trees. Paradise on earth! It’s also a popular place for locals to park their private boats and have an island party. If you go there on a weekend, you may see upwards of 30 boats parked on all sides of the island and you’ll hear a cacophony of music all around you. So if that’s not your scene, you should go during the week when it’s more quiet.

I’ve visited it four times now, and can’t wait to go back. Love it!

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Sadly, it looks like Ilet Caret has taken a turn for the worse since my last visit about six months ago according to a recent French-language news article. The island is disappearing, and it’s happening even faster than anyone thought!

Take a look at the new aerial photo published in the article. Sad, eh??

So does this mean that Ilet Caret is no longer worth visiting? Of course it doesn’t. Quite the contrary – it means the time to visit is NOW, since we never know how much longer we’ll have this island beauty in our Gwada lives.

And even if nearly all the palm trees have fallen victim to the waves and the rising seas, the island’s white sand and clear turquoise water still remain.

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If you are coming to Guadeloupe with the cheap-as-chips Norwegian Air flights, I highly recommend keeping Ilet Caret in mind. Visiting it makes for a really fun day out!

One of the easiest ways to visit the island is to take an organized speedboat day trip from St. Rose, Basse Terre, or to travel there from the Marina Bas-du-Fort onboard the King Papyrus catamaran.

Either way, go before it’s too late! I suspect that sooner or later, Ilet Caret will suffer the same fate as Ilet la Biche (pictured below). From that islet only this wooden shack remains on top of the water. It’s still an interesting place to visit on a kayak or a speedboat, but it’s not quite as picturesque as Caret Island.

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If you want more info about Ilet Caret and Ilet la Biche and the ways to visit them, my new e-book The Quick Gwada Guide has the details (along with 60+ pages of information about Guadeloupe).

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My Guadeloupe e-book is finally DONE!

It’s official! The Quick Gwada Guide e-book is finished! After six weeks of hard full-time work and a bucketload of joy and exhaustion … It’s finally done!! Yayyyyy. 🙂

If you are traveling to Guadeloupe with the new, cheap Norwegian flights from the US (or from elsewhere) and are interested in getting ideas for where to stay in Gwada, finding out the top 30 best things to see and do here, plus want to get answers to common traveler questions (What’s the seaweed situation like? Is it easy to find wifi? What should I bring with me? What if I don’t speak French?), this e-book is for you! It’s the first English-language guidebook about Guadeloupe written since the year 2000, so you literally cannot find more up-to-date information anywhere and in as concise of a format. (The e-book is 63 pages, but it’s easy to scroll to the sections that are most useful to you.)

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Here are some things that buyers have said about this e-book so far:

“I finished your book. It is absolutely excellent. This had to be a LOT of work for you, and I congratulate you on the result!” (Writer’s note: Yes, it was more work than I ever thought!)

“It is really, really good and I think it will be super helpful for first-time visitors! It would be really nice if Norwegian would put your guide in the seatbacks on all flights to Gwada!”

Very helpful book. I will take the time to offer some feedback after returning from Guadeloupe.”

“I just wanted to thank you for all your guidance and friendliness. It contributed to a wonderful maiden journey to Guadeloupe!”

“Mirva, thanks so much for the guide. You are like the Rick Steves of Guadeloupe. If you publish your guide on Amazon or anywhere else, I’d be glad to give you a positive review.

“Thank you so much! We got a lot of use out of your book.”

So yes, sounds like my guidebook has pretty much nailed it! And indeed, Amazon is the step I need to tackle next so that I can reach a bigger audience with this book. Another good contact could be the Guadeloupe tourist board and their new website. So much to do!

In the meantime, if you are interested in the Quick Gwada Guide, feel free to email me at gwadaguide@gmail.com to order a PDF copy. Based on reader reviews, it prints without any issues and can easily be read at least on the Amazon Kindle Fire.

The price of this e-book is $15 (thus a mere 23 cents per page!) and you will definitely save that money several times over if you invest in this guide. After all, I’m a budget traveler myself so I’ve included tons of tips for saving money while in Gwada, as well as a list of the top things to do here, many of them free or low-cost.

Payment is easiest done via Venmo or Paypal, using the email address of gwadaguide@gmail.com, but we can discuss other ways to pay if you aren’t familiar with those. Please leave your email address as a comment when you make the payment, so that I’ll know who to send the e-book to!

SEE YOU IN GUADELOUPE!

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Coming soon: My Guadeloupe guidebook!

Last month I woke up to the reality that there are no good and up-to-date English-language guidebooks on Guadeloupe, my home in the Caribbean. Yet there are tons of American tourists coming here currently with the new crazy-cheap flights from the East Coast of the USA. Fares start at $69 one-way! Most of the town a return trip will cost you around $300, but that’s still VERY cheap compared to the pre-Norwegian airline prices. Needless to say, I was super excited when they announced these flights back in the summer time.

And now I’m also extremely excited to announce that soon there will be an awesome new e-book available for people heading to Guadeloupe: The Quick Gwada Guide! Written by yours truly.

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I’m currently in the process of putting in the final finishing touches to the e-book (who knew that picking and choosing photos  and formatting text could be so time-consuming??) and will be selling it through this blog soon enough. The book will answer all the commonly asked questions, and include tons of tips for your stay in “tropical France.” The Quick Gwada Guide will also help you save money with its budget travel tips for this island that is one of the most expensive in the Caribbean.

Please stay tuned and feel free get in touch if you want to be among the first ones to receive an electronic copy!