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I’ll be saying goodbye to 2012 35,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean in United Global First. (You can join me. Seats in business (4+) and first (1) opened up on the flight today for the first time since February.)

It has been quite an eventful year that saw the founding of this blog, and trips purchased to all six inhabited continents, though I bailed on South America. That’s all right; this year I decided to move to Argentina in February.

I’ll give the best/worst of my travel year, and a brief rundown of my trips in 2012.

Best flight: United BusinessFirst from London to Los Angeles. Great sleep, great food, great entertainment. I have an upcoming flight in Emirates First, though, so 2013 is looking up in this department.

Worst flight: Los Angeles to Istanbul in economy. Thirteen hours without sleep and landing at 5:00 PM really makes me feel weird. I anticipate my longest economy flight of 2013 will be Washington DC to LAX.

Best redemption: 100k US Airways miles for 40 hours in business class making a rectangle between South America, Africa, Europe, and North America.

Worst redemption: 37,500 Delta miles to get a friend to Atlanta for the ACC tournament. Her return was diverted to St. Louis, and she had to drive all the way home to Minneapolis.

Best trip: My Euro trip to start the summer was incredible. I saw the French Open, Euro Cup, and Eastern Europe for the first time. I think I need to go back to Europe every summer.

Most Popular Post: Free Oneways on United Awards. But don’t read it. Read the updated and streamlined Master Thread: Free Oneways on United Awards.

Least Popular Post: Tell Your Best Travel Story to an Even Bigger Audience. We’ll try to do better next time.

Most Visited Page: MileValue Mile Value Calculator

Onto my year in travel, where I left the airport in 11 countries:

My 2012 Flights on gcmap.com

January to March

I spent six weeks from late January to early March in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Turkey. I flew LAX to Entebbe, Uganda via Istanbul in Turkish economy. The flight to Istanbul at 12:50 was the longest I’d flown to that point with a 6:20 PM departure and a 5:10 PM arrival the next day. I didn’t sleep a wink and felt atrocious in the Istanbul airport. After a brief layover, I got on the six hour flight to Uganda. It was about 15% full, but everyone was ticketed in the first few rows. I headed straight to the back and slept across three seats for the entire flight.

Uganda was incredible. I had been to Morocco, but never sub-Saharan Africa. Everything was an adventure. The buses had no identifying information discernible to me, and the middle class Ugandans I stayed with had outhouses with no running water and no toilet. But it was one of my favorite countries I’ve been to.

The scenery was incredible. I got off the beaten path and couchsurfed at a rural orphanage in the crater lakes area.

I went chimp tracking.

I went to a well-run hostel in the middle of picturesque Lake Bunyoni.

Then I crossed to Rwanda. Rwanda is a country still healing from a genocide less than 20 years old. I don’t want to make too big of a deal about that because it’s unfortunately the only thing many people know about the country, but since most of the people I met lived through a genocide, it has an effect on your day. The people there are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met. I think many of them are making a conscious effort to change people’s perceptions of Rwanda.

I went to the genocide museum in Rwanda. It is chilling. There is a room with a glass case full of skulls, next to a case of femurs, next to a case of ribs. That room was the most powerful for me, dehumanizing the victims like their killers did.

Then I headed into the mountains to track mountain gorillas. At $500, it is the most pricey activity I’ve ever done while traveling, but I thought it was worth it as a one-time thing. Rwanda and Uganda are managing their huge cash cow gorillas to avoid their extinction, so I am optimistic about the future of the gorillas, as long as they avoid slipping across the border to war-torn Congo.

A silver back charged us right at the end of our hour with them. Four hundred pounds barreling at me might was the scariest moment of 2012.

From Rwanda, I flew to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I found the city charmingly chaotic, and a very interesting mix of Islam and Christianity, African and Indian. The Indian food was yummy, and I spent a few nights playing poker before crossing to Zanzibar.

Zanzibar was the highlight of my African adventure. It was my first time in the Indian Ocean, which is incredible. I stayed in the Stone Town for a few nights and at a northern beach for a few nights. I got a private room for about $10 a night at the party resort, and met a few people my own age.

In Zanzibar, inside of a fortress, at a reggae festival, I bought a flight on a Cessna from Zanzibar to Arusha. That was by far the scariest flight of 2012. There was one pilot and one other passenger. He asked if we wanted to sit in the copilot seat, and the other passenger did. I slept the whole flight except take off and landing, where I felt like a mouse being swatted by a cat’s paw. The ride is not smooth, but it is terrifying.

In Arusha, I booked a four day Safari for $500 from the cheapest operation I could find. Overall I think that was the right choice. We saw all the same animals and actually got incredibly tasty vegetarian food from our cook. But our accommodations were a bottom-of-the-barrel shack and tents we pitched ourselves. I was happy with the tradeoff.

The safari was cool, but not as cool as I’d (unrealistically) hoped. I had been watching Big Cat Diaries–sadly no longer streaming on Netflix–which has incredible hunting scenes. But in reality, lions laze all day. Cheetahs and leopards do the same, but in trees because they are afraid of lions. The coolest part was probably being a few feet from a herd of elephants. Or watching the sheer numbers of wildebeest and zebras move.

The other highlight of the trip was the day spent at an impromptu driver’s strike. A Land Rover flipped on the poorly maintained dirt road ahead of us. When we got there, there were over a hundred cars stopped, with the drivers waiting six hours until the local transport minister came and argued with them before proceeding. It was actually a pretty fun day with a lot of hubbub, though, so I enjoyed the change of pace.

In Kenya, I kissed a giraffe.

I would rank my African wildlife highlights this way:

  1. Karen Giraffe Sanctuary in Nairobi, Kenya.
  2. Tracking mountain gorillas in Rwanda.
  3. Safari in Ngorogoro and Serengeti in Tanzania.
  4. Tracking chimps in Uganda.

On the return from Kenya, I took a five day stopover in Istanbul. That is a beautiful city that I would love to return to when it was warmer. It snowed in early March. Crossing to Anatolia was my first step on Asian soil. The open jaw ticket with stopover cost only $1,100 and earned me almost 20k United miles, so I was only 5k short of qualifying for United Silver, which I did a few weeks later.

Africa is where I decided to start this blog. I followed through and wrote the first post from Atlanta.

I spend five days in Atlanta watching the ACC basketball tournament in March. I got the roundtrip flights from LAX for $150 and qualified for United Silver with the 5k miles. This blog debuted from Atlanta.

May and June

In late May, I went to the UK, France, Poland, and Ukraine, which I detailed a bit here. My favorite of those countries, by far, was Poland for the history–Auchwitz was moving–food–kielbasa, pierogi, potatoes for dirt cheap–and beautiful women.

July and August

I went to Oahu for two weeks to play a tennis tournament with my brother. We won two matches and got to the championship of the qualifying draw. One more win would mean entering the main draw against the best doubles team in Hawaii. Instead, we got whipped by a couple of 18 year olds. But the tournament was a blast.

October through December

October started with my trip to the Chicago Seminars.

In November, I went to Vegas for the third time. My Vegas suggestions are midweek, Imperial Palace, and Buffet of Buffets.

I spent Thanksgiving on the East Coast for the first time in three years, which was a blast. I was proclaimed Thanksgiving dinner champion for the first time.

December started with my speaking at the Los Angeles Frequent Traveler University.

The next week I took a quick trip to Hawaii with two friends who had never been. I anticipate writing a fuller trip report soon, but the highlights of the trip were plate lunches, jumping off high things three different days, and the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

And the year comes to an end for me in 21 hours. I think I’ll have a glass of champagne at midnight. In 2012, I’ve moved to the front of the plane, spending a tiny fraction of the people in smaller seats a few hundred feet back.

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