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Next Stop, Azerbaijan

azerbaijan

After an extended time at home with no international trips, I’m headed back out on the road this week. My journey will take me to the Caucasus region, including Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia. Here’s how I arranged the trip and what I plan to do.

Itinerary

On Wednesday, the 28-hour journey to get to Baku, Azerbaijan begins. I’ll hop over to Denver to catch the Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, which connects to another LH flight to Baku.

If you don’t know where Baku is, don’t worry—I was fairly clueless myself until recently. Here’s how the whole trip looks in Google Maps:

In Azerbaijan I’ll travel overland (by train, I think) to Tbilisi, Georgia where I’ll meet up with a few readers who will also be traveling or working there. I expect to spend about a week around Tbilisi and the surrounding area. By then I’ll need to catch up on my work, and it seems like a good place to do it.

On the way out I’ll travel overland by bus (about six hours, or so I hear) down to Yerevan, Armenia—the last stop and exit point for the journey. I expect to be in Armenia a bit longer than in Azerbaijan, but a bit shorter than in Georgia.

The return flight requires an extra connection in Vienna with a 4:45am departure. I’d rather not have a flight that forces me to rock up to an airport in an unfamiliar part of the world around 2:00am, but when you go to places like Armenia, you don’t get much of a choice. From Vienna I connect to Frankfurt, and then head back home the same way I came. Thus, the itinerary by airport codes is as follows:

PDX-DEN-FRA-GYD-xGeorgia-xArmenia-EVN-VIE-FRA-DEN-PDX
(x represents overland segments)

It will be a long trip and I’ll probably be worn out when I get home, but these days when I can head out and visit three new countries on one trip, it’s worth it.

Cashing Out United Miles

I used 135,000 United miles for the trip, booked exclusively on Star Alliance partners (Lufthansa and Austrian Air) except for the Denver connection. Taxes were less than $60.

I’ve often been frustrated with United redemptions in the past. My world record of phone time with United is nearly two hours in one call—and unfortunately, there have been several runner-up entries that almost broke the record.

In fact, I’ve pretty much left United out of frustration with how hard it can be to reserve a trip—so when I decided to use most of my remaining United miles for this one, I was prepared for a long battle with outsourced support reps on the phone. To my pleasant surprise, we found availability on every flight I wanted (except for the extra Vienna connection, but that couldn’t be helped) and the whole call took less than 20 minutes. Awesome. It’s good to say goodbye to my United miles with at least one pleasant memory of putting them to good use.

Trip Plans

AONC reader and fellow nomad Audrey Scott has spent a lot of time in this part of the world, and she sent me a long list of recommendations for the trip. I also spent about half an hour looking through the one guidebook I could find at the bookstore. The guidebook confirmed what Audrey and others have told me: focus mostly on Georgia and Armenia.

I have an idea of a few things I’d like to see, and I know where I’ll be staying in Tbilisi. Otherwise, I don’t schedule much in advance. Since I know I’ll be meeting people in Georgia, I’ll probably just go along with whatever they do. I’d like to buy my train ticket out of Azerbaijan in advance, but I didn’t figure out an easy way to do it, so I’ll take my chances.

Visas

I lucked out on visas for this trip. According to a few different sources (I try to check several before a trip like this), the visa for Armenia is available at the border, the one for Azerbaijan is available at the airport, and I don’t need one for Georgia. Hopefully this information will turn out to be true when I actually turn up at the borders over the next couple of weeks.

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    36 Comments

    • Kylie says:

      I’ll wave to you from Tehran.

    • Chris Ward says:

      Awesome trip! I lived in Norway growing up, and their soccer team played Azerbaijan a few times, so somehow I knew where Baku was :-p

      Anyway, I noticed your disdain for United’s Mileage Plus. I’m looking to cash out my Air France miles (have had enough of being a frequent flyer with a non-US carrier because their phone hours are so limited), and migrate to a US-based Star Alliance carrier. I had originally targeted United, but now I’m having second thoughts. I suppose Air Canada would work, and then there is of course Continental now. Not really a fan of US Air. Do you have any experience with either of these carriers and their customer service?

      Thanks, Chris, for any and all advice and an awesome blog!

      Chris

    • Jon says:

      Sounds like your having a blast Chris.

      How’s the beer?

    • Sean says:

      Sounds like it is going to be an awesome trip.

      I know next to nothing about that part of the world, so I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

    • jphripjah says:

      Whenever I want to redeem miles, I just check the website. Usually there isn’t much availability. What do you get when you call and spend alot of time on the phone with the agents? Is there extra award availability that they don’t mention on the website?

      Or is the difference that instead of you plugging in dates and destinations on the website and getting repeated “no availability” responses, you can call and tell the agent “I want to go from Portland to Baku on a standard award, when is the next availability,” and then she finds it? That probably would be helpful.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks, guys.

      @Jon,

      Not sure yet — I don’t get there until Wednesday or Thursday.

      @Chris,

      Long story, but I recently switched from United to Continental on Star. I think Air Canada would also be a good choice. And yes, US Air sucks, but keep in mind that an airline and its mileage plan are not always the same. In the case of US Air I’d prefer not to fly them either, but they offer much easier Star Alliance awards than United does.

      @Jphripjah,

      When you check the web site (United.com or similar) you won’t see many (if any) options for that part of the world. You have to call in to check on all the Star Alliance partners. Then, sometimes you encounter availability problems that can only be manually sorted out on the phone. In short, phone is much better than online for anything other than simple redemptions with United.

    • Thx for the blow-by-blow!

    • Alison says:

      Hope you have a wonderful trip Chris. I spend a month in Tbilisi several years ago and had a blast! If you have time I definitely recommend getting out of the city into the countryside. The family I stayed with took me to several temples outside the city and into the Georgian Alps. All of it was incredible! Can’t wait to hear about your experiences to Tbilisi and the surrounding areas as well.

    • Andrew says:

      Hey I visited Baku Azerbaijan just last year, for my work in seismic oil exploration. Interesting place. You should check out their anti-soviet revolution monument–sobering and inspiring.

    • Ruth says:

      I love hearing about your travels. It reminds me of my days on the road- and makes me want to head out to explore new places, too.

      I’ll be waving from Jerusalem.

      Blessings to you on your journey!

    • Alan says:

      Travel safely, Chris. Look forward to meeting up in Tbilisi! Lots of construction in Baku – watch your head – but Fountain Square / Nizami Street, from what I remember, is a great place to walk around. The Old City is a must, especially at dusk.

    • Christina says:

      Traveling mercies! Thank you for representing our country so well around the world.

    • Chris Harmon says:

      Reminds me of a song. “Your everywhere, but I’m not”. I better buy your new e-book so I don’t get left out!

    • Best wishes on your trip, it sounds exciting! 🙂 I can’t wait to leave the country again for a bit. I’m crossing my fingers for Japan, perhaps not so exotic-sounding but a place I’ve been dying to go for years.

    • Sarah says:

      I just arrived in Armenia on Saturday for the first time, and at least at the airport, a 21 day single-entry visa for US citizens is acquired by filling out a simple visa application and paying 3000 Dram (about $8).

    • Ayan says:

      I just opened up my e-mail inbox and what do I see but “Next stop, Azerbaijan”. I’m really excited for descriptions and pictures and just in general reading about your trip.

      I’ve grown up in Canada but I’m originally from Azerbaijan, so I’m amazed that a traveller and blog writer (especially one whose blog I read) is going there.
      I haven’t visited in years (since I was a kid actually) so I’m curious as to changes I’m sure have come about, especially with the British/American influx into Baku.

      Thanks and I look forward to reading more about this–hopefully.

    • angelphillips says:

      This is an extremely exciting though unknown to the Western (especially USA) world region. Azeris would disagree with your verdict to focus mainly on Georgia and Armenia. All three countries boost ancient history, fantastic architecture, rich culture and absolutely unbelievable food. I can’t even tell you which food reigns supreme. We look forward to the separate food review (pretty please). The hospitality is amazing! Especially in Georgia, they might celebrate their guests’ arrival for a week. No kidding. I have a journalist friend in Baku, so I am wondering whether I can arrange an escort for you. Please, let me know. This would be a wonderful, wonderful trip!

    • Adri says:

      Hi Chris, have a great journey.

      I hope some day I could go to that part of the planet… but since I am a beginner in this… maybe I will start with some more popular country (but beautiful), Turkey 🙂

      keep inspiring us
      Adri~.

    • Henrik says:

      Have a good trip and good luck! I’ve done the same countries in the same order quite a few times (there’s not so many other options, given that travel between AZ to AM is all but impossible).

      I’ve also done it together with US citizens, and you are right about the visas. You can get them at the border (for 3000 AMD in Armenia and US$90/60EUR in Azerbaijan). Armenia recently introduced an electronic visa application procedure, but I tried that 3 days before a trip and got denied because the arrival time was too close. Getting it on arrival is cheaper anyway:)

      Make sure to take locals’ recommendations for food in all three countries (you’ll be pleasantly surprised). If you enjoy alcohol, pay attention to wine in Georgia and brandy in Armenia. And make sure to get out of the capitals for at least some daytrips! If you want to meet English-speaking folk in Tbilisi, go see the Hangar on Shavteli Street.

    • Stephanie says:

      Armenia has been on my wish list for awhile now. Thought about going last year but did Iceland instead. Very interested to hear your experiences in this part of the world.

    • Maltchinski Felix says:

      Chris to go from Portland to Frankfurt, there is a direct flight and you don’t need to connect in Denver Colorado.

    • Chris says:

      Nope, not anymore. The LH direct flight is no longer operating (unfortunately).

    • Good luck and safe travels to this fascinating part of the world which I know next to nothing about, so I’ll be interested in your take. We’ll criss-cross in the sky and I’ll wave to you in the air on my way to Paris.

      I agree, nice swan song with United Airlines .

    • Andi says:

      Absolutely fantastic! Have an incredible journey. I can’t wait to hear about it. 🙂

    • Alex Murphy says:

      Sounds amazing Chris! Enjoy yourself looking forward to hearing about it!

    • Ladyexpat says:

      Hi Chris,

      This is my first comment on your blog. Have a fantastic adventure.

      I just literally finished reading “A Brief Guide to World Domination”. and I think it has inspired me to go ahead with some projects that have been in my head for too long.

      Take care!

    • Deja says:

      So jealous! I want to go to Georgia.

    • Kanchuki says:

      Are you having same problems with google maps as I am? Where you cannot point the mouse at the exact starting point because it picks up the location pointer? Its very frustrating, if you know any workarounds please share.

    • Mario says:

      Have a nice trip Chris! I’m really looking forward to going to the Caucasus in the near future so I would love to know what your impression about things there is! Take care!

    • jenx67 says:

      Really, Chris, you never cease to amaze me. Just when I think you’ve been everywhere, here you go to Georgia. I’m with Deja. I’ve always wanted to visit there and many other places in the former block.

    • Srinivas Rao says:

      Chris,

      I really admire your lifestyle and aspire to eventually do the same. I was unemployed for the last 6 months and got into blogging and during that time I spent a great deal of time surfing. I fell in love with the sport and realized I would love nothing more than to create a blog about surfing and surf the world. I think what you have done is a great inspiration for me.

    • Vince says:

      Chris,

      You mention getting a Visa, when you travel abroad do you have to get a Visa, even if you are just traveling there for a short week? I ask because I thought that having your passport was enough to travel globally.

      Vince

    • Deja says:

      You’ve probably been reading up about Azerbaijan, but I thought I’d let you know about recent news I’ve been following concerning bloggers. Two youth have just been sentenced to prison for activism via video blogging. This is pretty significant in the area of defending free speech online. Read more about it here.

    • Thanks for the updates — have a wonderful, inspiring trip!

    • Patrick says:

      Great post Chris, sounds like another exciting trip. On, “…I decided to use most of my remaining United miles for this one, I was prepared for a long battle with outsourced support reps on the phone.” — you sure the ‘outsourced’ part is the problem? Often it’s the processes put in place that limit reps from giving you what you need – I’d blame United and the way they run things before I point towards outsourcing as a root cause! just some food for thought.

      btw if you’re ever in Manila let me know – I’m in and out helping companies in the US outsource here and elsewhere in the region.

    • Chris says:

      @Patrick,

      I didn’t say that outsourcing was the root cause; I just said that the phone battle is with outsourced reps who (unfortunately) may not know a lot about how awards tickets work. I certainly agree that United is to blame for not training their employees properly.

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