Travel achievement unlocked: million-miler status on United Airlines

The past three months of travel have returned me to many of my usual winter destinations, which has been great all around. But one flight in particular also took me somewhere I’d never reached before: past one million miles on United Airlines, a line I crossed 75 miles before landing in Frankfurt on my way to Barcelona for MWC last month.

Boarding passes--one for the IAD-FRA flight that put me over 1,000,000 miles, followed by older ones from United and Continental, with foreign-currency coins placed to hide my frequent-flyer numbers--sit atop a route map from United's Hemispheres magazine on which Dulles and Newark are visible.

That’s not one million frequent-flyer miles earned: United, like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, offers a separate set of benefits to long-term customers based on miles flown. And United is both stricter about welcoming passengers to them and more generous afterwards.

Where Delta simply totals expenditure-based elite-qualifying miles and American factors in flight distance on paid flights on its aircraft plus base miles earned on paid partner-airline flights, United counts just miles aboard its own planes with only two minor accounting exceptions (read after the jump if you want the details). Its reward for the first million miles is MileagePlus Gold status for life–still the best mid-tier status you can get on the big three carriers.

My journey of a million miles started with an ignominious single step: I misplaced a paper ticket and flew Continental Airlines a day late from Newark to Paris to visit my family in the spring of 1989. (I didn’t have a CO frequent-flyer account until my father opened one for me in January of that year; thanks, Dad.) After a couple of years of that transatlantic lifestyle, I barely left the ground for the next few years and flew Continental even less. Fortunately, that airline didn’t enforce a miles-expiration policy–allowing my wife and I have a wonderful ride to Italy and back for our honeymoon, upgraded with miles I’d earned a decade ago.

I didn’t open a frequent-flyer account on United itself until 2003. (My Washington Post colleague Keith Alexander’s business-travel coverage and my belated introduction to FlyerTalk were instrumental in making me realize the utility of focusing my business on the airline with a hub here.) E-mail statements from United are the only records I have left that long ago of my lifetime miles, and they show the number slowly ascending–from 52,056 in February of 2007 to 92,926 in February of 2009.

A blue United tag, with a 737's engine and the Pacific Ocean visible through a window in the background.

But then two things happened within about six months: United and Continental completed their merger in October of 2010, and then the Washington Post got rid of my column and my job. The first development combined lifetime miles mostly accumulated on flights out of Newark in the previous century with those I’d clocked more recently out of Dulles and National; the second freed me to travel, both on my own money and that of conference organizers.

By February of 2016, I was up to 581,205 miles; by February of 2018, two years of covering and speaking at events across oceans had me at 750,291. Along the way, I developed an exhaustive acquaintance with the seat maps of United’s fleet, increasingly detailed mental maps of its hubs, and an enduring fondness for George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” even after hearing snippets of it thousands of times in United ads, safety videos and hold music.

At the start of 2020, I finally added a column to my status-tracking spreadsheet (if you don’t have one and you’ve read this far, you should fix that) to record my million-mile progress. And then that progress stopped.

Last year saw this journey resume in earnest, and I finally crossed the million-mile mark on Feb. 26. Some avgeeks have had their flight crews celebrate the occasion, but I didn’t want to make myself too much of the story.

Because my newfound lifetime status wasn’t just about me: United lets million milers designate a companion to share their benefits, meaning I could elevate my wife to my own status. Sending an early-morning e-mail from a lounge in Frankfurt to surprise her with that news felt as good as any upgrade clearing ever has.

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Brief memories of Ukraine, over 32 years later

Until this week, my relatively limited travel around the world had not included any places that later became war zones on live TV. Thanks to Russia’s paranoid president Vladimir Putin lashing out in toxic nostalgia for the Soviet Union, that description no longer applies to Ukraine.

My mid-1989 introduction to what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was too brief. As part of a post-high-school-graduation student tour of the Soviet Union that my parents paid for (a boondoggle that I remain amazed got a green light from Mom and Dad), a few days after landing in Moscow, our group took an overnight train to the city then called Kiev.

Our compressed schedule over maybe two days there had us visit multiple museums, see a concert, and gawk at the Motherland Monument, a gigantic WWII tribute consisting of a statue of a woman hoisting a sword and a shield emblazoned with the USSR’s hammer and sickle. But we also had a limited amount of time to walk around Kyiv itself, which on our final day in the city yielded the unexpected sight of a large gathering of people next to a stadium holding signs and flags.

As in, the kind of politicial demonstration that was not supposed to happen in the country that President Reagan had fairly labeled an “evil empire.” The flags themselves–blue and yellow banners, which I knew did not match the red-and-blue flag of the Ukrainian SSR–were equally surprising.

I didn’t know what those people were protesting, and the photos I took don’t reveal enough visible text on their signs for me to type into Google Translate now. But more than three decades later, I think that the kind of people who would gather publicly under a forbidden flag in 1989 will fight like hell against Russia’s murderous incursion.

The other takeaway I retain from that trip, which also took our New Jersey contingent to Odessa, Sochi, and St. Petersburg, then still called Leningrad: The Russian people–some of whom have marched in the streets this week at considerable risk to their own safety to protest this assault against their democratic neighbor–deserve better than having any more of their future stolen by Putin and his corrupt, thuggish ilk.

Thanks, science

Unlike a year ago, I’m not writing a post-Thanksgiving post from my own house. Instead, my family and I were able to travel and spend this holiday with my mom as well as my brother and his family. And one of the many things for which we’re thankful is the unprecedented worldwide effort that allowed us all to get vaccinated, with the two youngest members of this family reunion getting their first doses earlier this month.

That was what I had hoped might somehow be possible once the awfulness of the pandemic broke through my early denial, but there was no guarantee that the scientists of the world could fulfill that hope. And there was even less reason to think that the United States would have three effective vaccines in sufficiently wide distribution to have more than 196 million Americans now fully vaxxed.

I am profoundly grateful to everybody who has spent long days in laboratories, hospitals, clinics and other medical workplaces to get us to this point. They have cleared a path for us all to move forward into the broad, sunlit uplands that Winston Churchill spoke of during another time of worldwide peril.

(Seeing this effort firsthand and making a microscopic contribution to it as an occasional vax-clinic volunteer with the Virginia Medical Reserve Corps–most recently, a week before Thanksgiving, when I had the welcome sight of parents lining up with under-12 kids–has been a tremendous honor.)

At the same time, a year ago I would not have guessed that an early rush to get vaccinated would fade as people either thought the pandemic was done and they could sit out getting a jab–or believed the conspiracy lies of politicians and propagandists about vaccines. I also would not have thought that vaccine distribution around the world would still be this uneven this far along.

Today’s agonizing news of yet another coronavirus variant is the reminder we shouldn’t have needed that taking our eyes off a moving target will cost us. But while you cannot count out humans’ capacity for stupidity and sloth, the last year and change should also offer more than enough reminder that it’s unwise to bet against human ingenuity.

9/11 + 20

Photo taken from a Rosslyn rooftop Sept. 8 shows the "tower of light" tribute shining into the night sky from the Pentagon, with the river, Memorial Bridge and the Washington Monument to its left.

Twenty years ago today, I woke up and then the nightmare began. First as heard through the calm voice of NPR’s Bob Edwards, then as seen in increasingly horrific images and video clips on TV and online that revealed the United States was in for one of the most painful days of its existence.

As I wrote to fellow tech journalists on a mailing list that night: “I just had to turn off the TV. I can’t stand to watch the clips of the plane crashing into the building anymore–I keep hoping the jet will miss, but it never does.”

The moments of September 11, 2001 that have stayed with me the most, however, aren’t in any photo or video I can inspect today. Biking to the Washington Post as D.C. was rapidly emptying of its daytime population, with the gigantic plume of smoke at the Pentagon rising into a sky of fear… anxious back-and-forth with friends in New York via AOL Instant Messenger when other means of communication failed… seeing a colleague burst into tears at the thought of all the financial-industry voices she had known who were silenced… the ride home through a grief-stricken city with troops on street corners and a quiet sky.

It was all a stunning realization of our own vulnerability. But today, 9/11 also strikes me as the day when any wishful thinking that the 21st century had freed us from the mistakes of the 20th got crushed, conclusively and cruelly.

The 20 years since haven’t been much kinder with their lessons about thinking we have escaped history. We started a war in Afghanistan that we mission-creeped into a doomed exercise into propping up a corrupt government, then launched a war in Iraq with no connection to 9/11 or even a reality-based assessment of our national interest. We did find and kill the author of the 9/11 attacks, but terminating Osama bin Laden’s crimes against humanity did not make us that much quicker to end the atrocities of the Daesh death cult that has no right to call itself “Islamic.”

At home, the body counts from gun deaths and opioid abuse grotesquely exceed those of 9/11 but invoke no somber anniversary commemorations or giant American flags draped from office buildings. And then we decided the way out of these turbulent times was to give the most powerful job in America to Donald Trump, who could never be accused of being too subtle or mild-mannered like his predecessor and instead inflicted a four-year reign of lies, cruelty, bigotry, and incompetence that culminated in a violent attempt to overturn the election. Jan. 6, 2021 scared me as a neighbor of the federal government in a way no other day had since Sept. 11, 2001.

As I type this, the pandemic that has now killed nearly one in every 500 Americans grinds on, even as many refuse to take the vaccines that can do more than anything else we know to free us from this plague. The more I think about 9/11-conspiracy lies, the more I see them as the extended beta test for the anti-vax delusions now afflicting my country.

Yet despite all that, we have made it a fifth of the way into this century, and at least many of us see the broken things we need to fix more clearly than we did 20 years ago. Today, I don’t want to think about the crimes committed then as much as the bravery, sacrifice and persistence we saw afterwards. And which endure today.

Road trips, now and way back then

CHARLOTTE, N.C.–I’m in the middle of my first multiple-day road trip since… um… 1996. Things about motoring around the U.S. have changed just a bit for me since that trip from Los Angeles to D.C., much less the 1992 trek from Sacramento to the District that was my first cross-country drive.

The biggest differences are that I’m doing this trip solo instead of with a college friend–and that instead of having a room in a group house or apartment awaiting at the end of the trip, I am looking forward to seeing my wife and almost 11-year-old daughter again.

Then comes the fact that this road trip is for work instead of fun, or what passes for fun when you’re in your twenties. I’m spending a week as one of the test drivers for PCMag’s Fastest Mobile Networks project, taking a rental car and six specially configured test phones to locations picked in a series of cities.

Photo shows my rental car with the door open, six test phones sitting on the passenger seat, and a row of storefronts in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Raleigh.

This freelance gig on wheels started with a train–I boarded Amtrak Tuesday for the first time since February 2020 for a short ride to BWI to pick up this car Tuesday, after which I met the previous driver in Baltimore to get the test phones and spend the afternoon driving around Charm City. I devoted Wednesday to driving around D.C., went from home to Raleigh, N.C. Thursday; spent all of Friday on the roads of the Triangle; and had a considerably shorter day of driving Saturday to reach here. My tour of the southeast wraps up in Atlanta Tuesday, after which I fly home.

The vehicle in question, a Chevrolet Spark, isn’t much bigger than the Toyotas involved in 1992 and 1997. But it’s as new as rental cars get, versus the 1977 Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission that made it across the U.S. in 1992 or the 1986 Tercel with a crack in the windshield that did the same in 1996. And it has such modern conveniences as air conditioning, power windows and a backup camera.

And instead of driving entirely offline–taking old cars across deserts with neither GPS nor the ability to communicate must seem bizarre to my kid–I have a smartphone to navigate and keep me in touch via calls, text messages, e-mail, multiple social networks, and the Slack channel PCMag set up for this test. Plus the six test smartphones that spend each day on the passenger seat running their automated tests, as seen in the photo above taken in Raleigh Friday morning.

(I wrote a more detailed explanation of the testing process for Patreon readers Friday.)

But in one respect, the technology of road trips may have backslid a bit from the 1990s. Those old cars lacked CD players but did include tape decks, while this Chevy is like many new cars in not including any playback hardware for prerecorded music. I can plug in a flash drive or pair my phone via Bluetooth, but I have yet to get around to cobbling together a road-trip-relevant playlist on my phone or copying one to a flash drive. Instead, I have instead relied on a more traditional soundtrack source: the radio. And since I had an excellent college-rock station to keep me entertained around Raleigh, that hasn’t been so bad.

7/22/2021: Updated to fix a couple of inaccuracies I only realized when checking this post against old photo albums.

More things I have learned from being a cat’s human

Among the many changes the pandemic has led to in our home, this one’s the weirdest: We now routinely wake up with a live animal ensconced on our bed.

It took several months for the cat we adopted a year ago Thursday to decide that his preferred sleeping spot was at the end of our bed… and then for my wife and I to realize how we appreciated having Abel be our foot warmer, especially in winter. We also now have an extra alarm clock, in the form of Abel walking over or around us once he thinks it’s time to get up.

Photo shows Abel sitting on my laptop and a WiFi hotspot

If you are not a cat’s human, the preceding two paragraphs may look weird. I get it; I was not read up on this element of cat bonding myself before last May’s increase to our house’s population.

I also didn’t realize that while Abel would be capable of understanding the words “off” or “down” when we ask him to get off the dining room table, his compliance would not stop him from jumping from floor to chair to back on the table five minutes later. (This remains a source of shrugging amusement.)

Nor did I know about the weird noises cats make while grooming themselves–or that I would learn to tune out that self-care soundtrack.

And while I was aware of all the hair cats shed, I definitely did not Get The Memo about the inevitable byproduct of cat sneezes.

And yet the newest member of our family provides endless amusement around the house, allows me to contribute to the Internet’s stock of cat photos, lives up to the low-maintenance reputation of cats by spending much of the day sleeping, and returns our affection by nuzzling us and sometimes rubbing noses–and I didn’t realize how great that last part would be. We have a good little cat. Happy adoptiversary, Abel!

The ignominious pandemic anniversaries pile up

A year ago today, the novel-coronavirus pandemic got a little more real for me and yet remained nowhere real enough. That’s when I had to cancel my travel plans for MWC in Barcelona after the organizers of that wireless-industry trade show succumbed to a wave of withdrawals by their bigger exhibitors.

The blog post I wrote then about MWC’s scrubbing betrays a stunning refusal to consider what I might not know about the emerging pandemic and the possible inadequacy of our own response to it. So do the e-mails I sent to friends and family that week, in which I blithely talked about plans for work and family trips in March, April and beyond as if the disease would somehow soon go away.

Now the Earth has gone a full orbit around the Sun since those early and excruciatingly bad takes, and the pandemic anniversaries are starting to stack up. Last Friday marked a year since my last time speaking at a conference out of town, last Saturday a year since my last attendance at a sports event. The coming weeks will bring the anniversaries of my last in-person panel, conference reception and indoor dinner at a restaurant.

Since then, we have learned many things the hard way, while almost half a million Americans aren’t around to benefit from those lessons. Tens of thousands more get sick every day; this week’s numbers included an old friend who only today had his temperature drop below 100 degrees after a few tense and agonizing days wracked by this virus.

But as of tonight, just over 50 million Americans have now received at least one dose of the vaccine–my in-laws among them, my mom scheduled next week.

I believe that we have already reached the farthest point of our own orbit away from the Before Times. But after having been wrong so many times in my pandemic predictions, I will not now forecast when this trajectory might land us back on something like the Earth we knew.

Farewell to a well-traveled passport

The passport I’ve carried for almost 10 years is officially retired now that I’ve put it in the mail with my renewal form, a check, and a photo of me showing a lot more gray hair than the January 2011 shot in my about-to-expire travel document.

The stamps in that worn passport tell an incomplete story of travel on an unprecedented scale for me–something I had no idea would become part of my life when I had no idea that my travel-light job at the Washington Post was in its closing months. Flipping through that passport over the last 11, mostly-grounded months has been one of my ways to remember what Conference Life was like in the Before Times and to think about what it can be like once again as novel-coronavirus vaccination marches on.

Photo of old passport held open to show stamps, with a United Airlines route map in the background

Those stamps show my most frequent arrival and departure airports were Frankfurt and Shanghai (six each), followed by Brussels (five) and Berlin, Munich, and Lisbon (four each), with others from Barcelona, Dublin, Fukuoka, London, Narita, Paris, San Jose del Cabo, Shenzhen, and Zurich.

But those stamps (and the array of security-sticker travel barnacles on the back) only reveal part of my travel timeline because Hong Kong and Israel stamp separate pieces of paper, while Canada no longer stamps U.S. passports at entry ports with electronic kiosks. There are also no stamps from anywhere in Europe since early 2017, when I began using my Irish passport for EU travel; that’s gotten processed electronically every time instead of collecting a little ink.

This collection of travel souvenirs still doesn’t touch what I can see in one of my dad’s passports from the 1960s and 1970s (or those of some of my avgeek friends), but it still represents an enormous leap for me. One of several hundred thousand miles.

Now I get to wait for my new passport to arrive in the mail with strangely-pristine pages–along with the expired passport that I may not be able to consign permanently to a drawer. The Chinese visa in it runs through 2026, so if any future travel will have me going to the People’s Republic, that document will once again come along for the ride.

Home for the holidays–except it’s my own home

We spent Christmas in an unprecedented place: our house. Like many of you (I hope all of you), we scratched our travel plans on account of the pandemic that as of today has killed more than one in every thousand Americans. The end of December has involved travel by plane, train or automobile for me ever year since high school, but that streak finally ended.

Homemade wreath on a front door

I have to admit that it felt oddly calming to wrap up my shopping on the evening of Dec. 23, the latest day I’ve headed out of town, and realize I could take my time browsing at the Downtown Holiday Market instead of worrying about having to pack once I got home. Between this immense simplification of holiday logistics and the absence of the usual barrage of CES PR pitches, it’s been a less stressful season.

Celebrating Christmas at home also allowed our cat to be part of the festivities. It turns out that Abel likes playing with wrapping paper and ribbons, so this worked out well for him and for us.

Plus, we had a few snow flurries, so the day met the technical definition of a white Christmas.

The downside is that it’s now been more than 13 months since I’ve seen my mom and my brother, and it’s been almost as long since my wife saw her parents and her sister. FaceTime and phone calls have been poor substitutes for hugs.

I would very much like to think that by the end of March, enough people will have been vaccinated to have the pandemic rapidly receding and family travel plausible again. But I’ve been wrong so many times in my pandemic forecasts here before that I’m nervous even writing that hope now.

Thanksgiving almost entirely from scratch, and on short notice

More than three decades after I moved out, I finally cooked Thanksgiving without parental help. This was not my original plan for the holiday, but the pandemic led us to scrap that a week before the holiday–giving me just enough time to shop and plan a downsized meal.

The turkey was the first item to cross off the to-do list. I thought about buying just a turkey breast, but when I realized that Virginia’s EcoFriendly Foods had half turkeys for sale, I picked up one at the Arlington farmers market on Saturday. FYI, it is significantly easier to carry less than 7 pounds of half a bird–yes, I lived up to local stereotype by buying a left-wing turkey–than 14 pounds of a complete one.

I also came home from the market with a few pounds of potatoes, leaving surprisingly little shopping for other ingredients over the next few days: sweet potatoes, fennel, and stuffing mix.

Thanksgiving itself started a little before 9 a.m. with mixing dough for two baguettes. Julia Child’s recipe from The Way To Cook spans five pages and requires three rises; it’s far more effort than the no-knead bread I’ve done in previous years, but a complete baguette freezes better than half a loaf.

As the dough rose, I made the crust and filling for pumpkin pie from my usual recipe; getting dessert finished before 1:30 p.m. was a good morale booster. The baguettes went into the oven next (accompanied by a head of garlic), while on the stove top I boiled the potatoes.

But what about the turkey, the entree that my brother’s wife had handled when we had family Thanksgiving here last year? I had been tempted to follow Kamala Harris’s advice about wet brining but didn’t get around to that Wednesday, so I limited myself to rubbing butter on the bird and then seasoning it with salt, pepper, herbes de Provence and some diced rosemary from the garden.

I mostly followed the roasting directions in my go-to cookbook, Mark Bittman’s How To Cool Everything, except that I cooked it at 450 degrees instead of 500 for the first 20 or so minutes before backing down to 350 degrees. I stuck the temperature probe for a ThermoWorks Dot into what seemed the thickest part of the bird and set the alarm on that remote thermometer to 165 degrees.

Meanwhile, my daughter helped mash the potatoes as I threw too much butter and some of the roast garlic into that pot while my wife handled the stuffing and crafted some tangy cranberry sauce from scratch, using a recipe she’d looked up that afternoon.

After about two hours in the over–another advantage to getting half a bird–the turkey was done and looked and tasted amazing. Folks, this doesn’t have to be hard; like many other areas of cooking, throwing butter at the problem works. Speaking of which, I whipped up some gravy from the drippings in the pan. I will admit that the results were lumpy, not that anybody cared.

The only real misfire in this entire cooking production was the roast vegetables–putting that dish of sweet potatoes, carrots and fennel on the top rack in the oven meant that I didn’t see it when I took out the turkey and so left them a bit overdone. But roast veggies are pretty fault tolerant, and everybody ate enough of everything that we had to walk around the neighborhood to check out the earliest Christmas decorations before indulging in dessert.

Thanksgiving was not the same with relatives only visible on an iPad’s screen, but at least we did dinner right. And now we’re going to see how long Thanksgiving leftovers last with only three people around to eat them.