Just back from – a day trip to Regensburg

I’ve washed the smell of wood smoke out of my hair and a couple of Ibuprofen have sorted out the backache, for now at least.  My latest day trip was the longest yet, but proof yet again that you don’t need to overnight to enjoy a rewarding experience over in continental Europe.  This time, I had my sights set on Germany’s famous Christmas markets.


This month’s destination, hot on the heels of Budapest, Bremen, Belfast, Lisbon and Amsterdam which have previously featured on this blog, took me to Nuremberg.  A flash sale on Ryanair’s website netted me return flights to the Bavarian city for the princely sum of £4.08 all in.  The offer was one with limited availability, not only in terms of seats but also in validity, solely for flights on Tuesdays or Wednesdays in November.  Such offers come up quite often and it’s worth subscribing to Ryanair’s email alerts if you’re within easy reach of Stansted.  I also saved money on my airport parking by purchasing it through the Holiday Extras website which saved me over a fiver.  My 7.35am flight from Stansted was on time and we touched down shortly after 10.15am.

I made use of the Bayern ticket which I’d learnt about on a trip to Munich.  The ticket’s valid for a day from 9am to 3am the next day which gives plenty of time for sightseeing.  It offers unlimited travel throughout Bavaria on all trains except ICE, IC and EC (so basically excludes high speed trains) as well as city transport in many of the larger cities.  The cost?  A flat fare of 23 euros if bought from a ticket machine, 25 euros if bought from a kiosk.  Unfortunately there’s no train service from Nuremberg airport which means no DB ticket machines (a U-bahn service operates instead with a fare of 3 euros for a ticket with 90 minutes’ validity) so I had to buy the Bayern ticket at the Airport Information desk for the higher price.  As it covers the U-bahn that was still the cheapest way of doing it.

It wasn’t long before I was in Regensburg and my first stop was the Neupfarrplatz Christkindlmarkt.  Most German Christmas markets get underway on 25th November this year, but Regensburg’s begin a couple of days earlier.  The market was well underway at midday, a mix of traditional market stalls and refreshment huts.  Next I checked out the Lucrezia Craft Market, though that was still being set up.  There were some stalls that had limited wares on display, the likes of sheepskin clothing, wood carvings and handmade silver jewellery.  To reach the third of Regensburg’s markets I needed to cross the old stone bridge at the Spitalgarten.  Again, setting up was in progress but the walk was a pretty one and there were sheep waiting in the wings to coo over.

I crossed back over the Danube for a lunch stop at the Regensburg Sausage Kitchen, one of the oldest restaurants in Germany.  Prices were reasonable and they did takeaway, though even at the end of November, it was warm enough in the sunshine to eat at one of its picnic tables.


The main focus of my visit was the Christmas market at the Thurn und Taxis Palace.  Regensburg’s Old Town has hundreds of listed buildings but this palace and its grounds are the jewel in the crown.  The Christmas market is more than just a market, with live music and even visiting alpacas and camels.  The latter obviously play a role in the Christmas story but I think the alpacas were just there as a crowd-pleaser; certainly every time I held up the camera, they turned their heads and posed!


But let’s get down to business: this is no ordinary market.  Princess Gloria from Thurn und Taxis apparently is pretty hands-on with the organisation of the market and I did see a couple of elegant, well-dressed women who might have been her.  The market, less well known outside Germany than the likes of Munich’s markets for instance, attracts a mainly local crowd, though it’s definitely worth making the journey for.


The market attracts artisans not just from Germany, but from surrounding countries such as Austria as well.  The man selling delicious hot cheese bread had made the journey from the Voralberg and the journey had done his cheese no harm at all.  It was cheap, filling and almost worth the market’s 6,50 entrance fee in itself.


As darkness fell, the market took on a magical atmosphere.  Open fires and strings of fairylights added to the romance of the market and there were plenty of stalls to browse.  It’s at dusk when you really start to appreciate the attention to detail.  Stallholders decorate their huts with freshly cut branches from pines, spruces and firs: the smells as well as the aesthetics are something to savour.


The good thing about not having to pay for accommodation is that there was plenty of cash in the budget that could be used for souvenir shopping instead: I was spoilt for choice amongst a wide selection of products including sheepskin rugs, rustic Christmas ornaments, clothing and handcrafted metal ware.

The palace itself, larger than Buckingham Palace, looked spectacular as the lights came on.  At six, a pair of trumpeters heralded the official start to the festivities, followed by a choir and costumed soloists.  The balcony overlooking the main courtyard provided the perfect staging.


Eventually, it was time to wander back to the station for a train to take me back to Nuremberg.  The seven hours I’d spent in this delightful city was plenty to enjoy it without rushing.  My flight departed more or less on time at 10.35pm; I’d landed and cleared immigration well before midnight UK time.

I’m already planning my next day out to a European Christmas market – but this time, I’m off to Copenhagen and I’ll be blogging about it next month.

Will you be trying Eurostar’s cheap deal?

Interesting article in the news today that Eurostar will be offering some very cheap deals  on its fares to Paris, Brussels and Lille.  The fares will be available for trains from the end of November to mid-January and you can book from next week.  Simon Calder was explaining the offer during a breakfast television segment this morning, and the Independent article he wrote on the story can be read here:



On the face of it, £19 each way sounds like a bargain and I’m certainly one who’d usually espouse the benefits of train travel over flying.  However, I’m not sure I like the terms and conditions – if it wasn’t enough that you don’t find out which time train you’re on until almost the last minute (you could end up trying to get to St Pancras very early!), if the train they allocate for you gets full at the last minute you’re going to be bumped to a jump seat.

I had a look at easyJet’s website to see what kind of prices they’re offering from Luton, Gatwick and Southend – there are some good deals to be had especially in January, with Southend coming out as the cheapest at the time of writing.  It looks like flying won’t cost much more than the Eurostar, and of course you get to choose exactly what time you depart and return.  In terms of travel time, it would take me as long to get to LTN, LGW and SEN as it would to central London, so for me that factor doesn’t influence my decision.

Personally, I’m no great fan of Paris or Brussels, and as I’m off to Nuremberg soon with Ryanair for the princely sum of £4 return including tax, I shan’t be booking.  What about you?  Would this special offer tempt you?

Checking in to come home, Russian style


I stood, motionless, in the middle of the crowded space. People came and went around me. Some queued, others waited patiently next to piles of luggage, still more hugged relatives in emotional goodbyes. For all the world, it looked like a regular airport, going about regular airport business. I reckon I’ve been to thousands of airports in my time, striding confidently across halls, dealing with airport officials, polite on the outside even if seething on the inside at petty officiousness and stupid rules. I’m no fan of airports, you understand, but they are a necessary evil to get me to somewhere exotic and exciting.

But this one had me stumped. For the first time, I couldn’t find check-in.

How do you lose check-in? How is it possible not to see row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts, with their maze of retractable queue barriers that make you pace this way and that like a caged lion? How do you lose the planeloads of people that must have got to the airport before you as your flight is going out late afternoon?

Like a detective, I scoured the room for clues. The space was devoid of signage, even in Russian. I couldn’t see anyone holding a boarding card and most people still had large suitcases. Was I in arrivals, I wondered? I headed back outside. The sign read “Departures”.

Back inside, I started to ask fellow passengers but drew only blank looks. Pointing at my suitcase and shrugging my shoulders in a kind of a “what do I do with this?” mime wasn’t working. Pointing at the airport page in my phrase book and again at my suitcase wasn’t working. I glanced at my watch. At this rate I’d miss my plane.

Half an hour before, I’d been so relaxed. Russia, so daunting at first, had lost its ability to intimidate. My vocabulary was still limited to a dozen words (and only then if “Big Mac Meal” counts) but I’d learnt to match the Cyrillic alphabet to their Latin translation which was enough to make a quiz game out of most days’ activities. The people I’d met on the numerous trains and buses that had transported me 3500 miles across the Russian steppe to Ulan-Ude had, without exception, been helpful and charming. For three days, Aleksandr, the Russian Army officer headed for Chita, had fed me omul for breakfast on the slow train to Irkutsk, asking nothing in return save for a compliment about his red-haired wife in the photo album he carried in his kit bag. That same smoked fish hung in the market in Listvyanka, a tumbledown village on the shores of Lake Baikal. An elderly woman, head covered with a colourful babushka, pointed out the sights from the bus and used my phrase book to explain she was off to buy crystals.

I thought about her, in the airport terminal, and cursed my phrase book. What editor would include the word for crystal but not check-in? It was hot in the hall, and I wiped my brow with the back of my hand. I was starting to panic. The voice inside my head told me to calm down. I still had twenty minutes before check-in closed. There was a queue forming at the far side of the room and I joined the end of it. My question about whether this was the check-in queue leapfrogged up the queue like a Chinese whisper. Back came the answer – no.

No? No?!!!

I turned away from the queue and the mutterings of its occupants. I was running out of ideas. Now I started to mentally re-plan my journey home. If I couldn’t fly back to Moscow, I’d have to take the train, a four or five day trip. I’d miss my Moscow connection and have to pay for a new flight. More than that, I’d have to suffer the humiliation of telling friends and family the reason I’d missed my flight and suffer months of good natured ridicule.

Indignant, I thought to myself that no airport was going to beat me. I scanned the hall again. Along one side, there was a blank white wall. It looked like a recently-erected partition, free of scuffs and scratches, though I couldn’t be sure. I wheeled my case over for a closer look. On inspection, there appeared to be a concealed doorway. I knocked and waited. A businessman in a hurry pushed his way past me and through the door. I looked through, of course, to find out what was behind it.

There before me stood row upon row of impersonal white desks and grubby baggage belts. I made check-in with five minutes to spare.

What to do if… you miss your flight

One of the biggest obstacles to independent travel is the fear of things going wrong.  Without the safety net of a tour company, worrying about how to cope might well seem like a sure fire way of ruining a good holiday.  I decided long ago that I’d prefer to be in control – no surprises for those who know me beyond the computer screen.  But things do go wrong and it’s good to know what to do if that’s the case.


Always good to see “On Time” showing

Missing a flight is stressful.  It doesn’t matter why or whose fault it was, it’s stressful.  Mostly, when I’ve missed flights, it’s been a case of a late-arriving inbound flight causing a missed connection, but I’ve arrived at the airport on more than one occasion to find my flight had already departed.  You can read the stories here:


What to do if you miss a connecting flight because the inbound flight is late

If you’re still on the plane when your next one is merrily backing off the stand, no amount of pleading with airport staff is going to get you on that flight.  The first thing to think about is whether you have a through ticket.  If you buy two separate tickets and the first is delayed, the carrier operating the second leg has no obligation to honour your ticket.  Don’t choose flights with very short connection times either.  Immigration officials can be very stubborn.


Fantasy or reality?

Minimise your chances of being stranded by choosing a carrier who operates multiple flights a day to your final destination if at all possible and avoid opting for the last flight of the day.  If they have space, you’ll still get to your destination the same day, albeit later than planned.

Speak to the ground staff as quickly as possible; if there are more people to rebook than there are seats available, you don’t want to be last in the queue.  Holding a frequent flier card with that airline can also help you move up the queue.  It can also pay to get an aisle seat as near to the front of the plane as you can, particularly if you know you have a tight connection.

Be nice.  It’s not the fault of the ground staff if your plane was late in.  Getting angry isn’t going to help.  In fact, it’s likely to hinder your chances of organising a speedy replacement flight if you piss off the one person that can arrange it for you.  Save your breath and stay calm.

Be flexible.  Can you travel to a different airport in the same city?  It’s inconvenient, perhaps, but still better than not arriving at all.  Let the ground staff know what you’d be prepared to put up with.  If you’re due at a hotel but are going to lose the first night of your booking, get in touch with them and explain – they might let you off any financial penalties they’d usually impose.


Be patient

What to do if it’s your fault you miss the flight

Technically, the airline doesn’t have to do a thing and you’ll have to abandon your travel plans or buy a new ticket.  So be nice and hope they take pity on you – and I mean really nice.  Appeal to their better nature.  Coming back from Bangkok, arriving 21 hours late for a flight just after midnight, I explained to the check in staff my humiliating predicament.  As a Geography teacher who taught about time zones and tourism amongst other things, if they couldn’t fit me onto that night’s flight, I was going to have to confess to my students the real reason I’d shown up for work a day late…

What to do if it’s their fault – your flight is cancelled

Your airline must offer to rebook you on a later flight or offer you a refund.  They have an obligation to get you to your destination, though not necessarily by the routing you’ve chosen or on a particular day.

Note that if your flight originates in the EU or arrives there from anywhere else but on an EU airline, you are entitled to compensation – even if the airline claims you aren’t.  If an EU and a non-EU codeshare applies – such as Virgin and Delta, for instance – you’ll only fall into this category if your ticket and therefore contract is with the EU airline – Virgin in my example.  I had a long and drawn out fight with Cityjet over this right to compensation, but eventually won.  Read about how to get your money back here:



Airlines should give you a written notification of a flight cancellation

You’ll see from that post that keeping evidence is crucial.  Make sure you keep hold of boarding pass stubs and receipts until you’re safely home without any problems.  Never send off your only copy of something; scan instead.

Make sure you have decent insurance in case you need to recoup your costs that way instead.  This may be your only option for compensation if you’re travelling outside the EU on a non-EU airline.

For more information, there’s a useful link here:


How to fly business class for the price of economy

At the end of May I flew business class on BA to New York. As an ex-teacher and now a travel writer who specialises in budget independent travel, you could be forgiven for wondering how on earth that budget managed to stretch beyond economy. Well, the answer is, it didn’t. My ticket from Europe to New York’s JFK airport cost me the princely sum of £342. This is the story of how I did it.


Error fares explained

I travelled on what’s known as an error fare – and it’s just that, a mistake fare.  Sometimes, perhaps as a result of exchange rate glitches or human error (who cares so long as it’s a mistake in your favour) the computer offers up a fare at way below market rate.  They don’t last long, sometimes staying available hours or even minutes.  So how do you find one among all the many destination combos and available dates?

Subscribe to alerts

I subscribe to many email newsletters but those that are the most useful in this respect come from Secret Flying http://www.secretflying.com, from CheapFlightsLab http://www.cheapflightslab.com and from FlyNous http://www.flynous.com.  Each have the facility to subscribe on social media – in fact I first became aware of Secret Flying via a post that popped up as a retweet on Twitter.  Follow them on whatever platform you’re most likely to spot them.   Make sure you have notifications switched on. In this instance I saw the deal first on a Secret Flying Facebook post.

Sift out unwanted deals

I tend to stick to the well respected airlines and travel booking sites that I’ve used before.  So if a deal has to be booked through a consolidator’s website and I’ve not heard of them, I don’t use them.  Equally, I don’t want to be bombarded with offers that originate outside Europe, so I select European deals only.

Be flexible

The business class fare I found actually originated in Oslo, Norway.  The return flight was in four legs: OSL-LHR-JFK-LHR-OSL.  The way air tickets work, if I’d been a no-show for the first leg from Oslo to London, the rest of the ticket would have been cancelled.  I couldn’t have just travelled straight from Heathrow.  However, so long as I didn’t have checked baggage (and remember business class offers a more generous cabin baggage allowance) then I would be permitted to exit in London on the return leg and just “miss” the onward flight to Oslo.

A few words of warning

As I’m UK-based, the cost of getting to Oslo had to be factored into the equation.  I’d never been to Oslo and decided to travel on the morning flight from LGW to OSL the day before my New York flight and make a mini-break of it.  My one-way flight cost £45 and I added a budget hotel room on for about £30.  If you’re keeping a tally, that’s £417 to fly to New York business class – pretty much the same as a reasonable economy fare.  Norway’s not cheap, but I could have chosen a hostel should I have wished.  I could also have chosen an error fare via somewhere that offers cheaper accommodation, Spain for instance, or waited for one originating in London.

In the event, that Oslo flight was delayed by a staggering eight hours, scuppering my plans to explore the Norwegian capital but fortunately not impacting on my New York flight.  But – and I cannot stress this enough – be generous with your connection time: had my inbound flight arrived too late, I’d have forfeited my NYC error fare as the two segments weren’t purchased as part of a single through ticket.

Sometimes, these error fares are honoured and sometimes they are not

The airline is under no obligation to honour an error fare.  Basically, once you find and book an error fare, sit tight for a week or so.  Use a credit card to pay for the error fare and don’t invest any money just yet in hotels, connecting flights or airport transportation.  That way, should the error fare be cancelled, you won’t be out of pocket.

Once you have a confirmed ticket (check on the airline’s own website against your booking reference) then things should be OK.  Make sure you have decent insurance cover just in case and it’s also wise to book your accommodation on a free cancellation basis.  Sites like booking.com do this as a matter of routine; you can usually cancel right up to the day before without incurring a financial penalty but check carefully before you commit.

They work for economy too

At the time of writing Malaysian Airlines has an economy class error fare deal to Manila in the Philippines for £265 with availability showing from October 2016 to April 2017.  These flights originate and end in London, so no need to mess about with connecting flights like I did for New York.  Business class error fares come up less frequently but they do come up.  The trick is to keep an open mind.  Rather than look for a particular route, see which error fares come up and then book the one that excites you.  I’ve never been to the Philippines…

Sit tight until the right deal comes up – and then grab it before it’s gone!  Happy travels.

A beginner’s guide to Extremadura

Extremadura isn’t on most people’s radar when it comes to holidaying in Spain, overshadowed by its popular neighbour Andalusia. That doesn’t mean it’s got nothing to offer, however, and this region has proved to be one of the most diverse and interesting parts of Spain that I’ve visited.


Bakery selection in Trujillo

Getting there from the UK

There aren’t any direct flights from the UK to Extremaduran towns so realistically, the choice is between Seville to the south of the region and Madrid to the north east. Ryanair fly to Seville from London’s Stansted airport, BA, Ryanair and easyJet from Gatwick. If you’re wondering why Iberia’s missing from the list, it codeshares with BA on their LGW flight. From regional airports, you’ll have to connect as there are no direct routes.


Ryanair en route to Seville

Those same airlines will also carry you to Madrid, plus Norwegian, a low-cost carrier operating out of Gatwick, as well as Iberia Express and Air Europa also from Gatwick.

Getting to and from the airport

I flew into Seville and out of Madrid on this trip but there’s no reason why you can’t do a round trip route or reverse the itinerary. To get into Seville from the airport I caught the airport bus, buying a ticket while I queued up for a few euros. It stops at the train station Santa Justa, skirts the old town and ends up at the main bus station, making it a convenient option wherever you’re staying.


One of the most atmospheric bars in Barrio Santa Cruz, Seville

In Madrid, my train’s final destination was Chamartin station to the north of the city centre but I bailed at Atocha. Getting to the airport was straightforward; the cercanias or stopping trains are quickest but go to Terminal 4. I’d opted to fly Ryanair which left from Terminal 1 and so I connected to the airport using metro line 8.

Getting around

Whether or not you’ll need to rent a car depends on whether you wish to explore the region’s attractive countryside and villages or stick to the main towns. There are a few train connections, such as between Badajoz to the west and the Spanish capital, but for me, on many of the routes I wanted to use, buses operated to a more convenient schedule. Operators include LEDA, ALSA and Avanza.


Every town has a main square; this is Zafra’s

I caught the bus from Seville to Zafra; you can buy a ticket to Mérida for around 10 euros. Although it’s possible to alight at Zafra, as far as I could work out, I couldn’t buy a ticket to Zafra online (you can in person) so I needed a separate ticket from Zafra to Mérida. Book online at http://www.alsa.es. It was just a few euros – well worth it for the chance to see this charming little town.


Pizarro’s mansion in Trujillo

From Mérida to Cáceres, an hour or so further north, I used LEDA; find them at http://www.leda.es where they also offer online booking. A single ticket costs just under 6 euros. From Cáceres, I made a sideways hop to atmospheric Trujillo for under 4 euros each way, leaving my bag in a locker at the bus station back at Cáceres. Tickets from the brand new and barely open bus station in Trujillo only go on sale fifteen minutes before the bus departs with Avanza but the buses weren’t full.


The hammam at Cáceres

To explore Monfragüe National Park and the La Vera valley in a day, there was no alternative to hiring a car. I used Europcar as its office was an easy walk from my Plaza Mayor base and also a straightforward and mercifully short drive to the ring road, easing the pain of town traffic. I did get a tiny bit lost getting the car back but I was only a few blocks out.


Birds take flight over the Ciudad Monumental

To get from Cáceres to the capital Madrid, I figured a train might be more reliable (it wasn’t – we were 40 minutes late getting in) and the train ticket on one of RENFE’s Media Distancia trains was also considerably more expensive than the buses I’d taken – around 32 euros.


The Extremaduran countryside as seen from the train

Where to go

Where to start? There are so many incredible destinations that it’s hard to whittle them down. In order, here are the places I visited during my Extremaduran holiday.


This small town felt more like an Andalusian town than an Extremaduran one, though as it was the first stop on my itinerary, I hadn’t at that point worked out what an Extremaduran town might feel like. It has a pretty double square with lots of pavement cafes and tapas bars. I was there just for the day but I am told the food scene is good there – something for next time. The town also has a castle, now converted into a parador, and plenty whitewashed alleyways adorned with window boxes stuffed full of geraniums.


Street leading to the main squares


This town is supposed to have the best preserved Roman remains in Spain. The sheer number of ruins was impressive, but some sights had more of the wow factor than others. There’s a partially reconstructed amphitheatre next to a fantastic open air theatre. Then there’s the breathtaking Temple of Diana which is literally plonked halfway along the main street with shops and cafes either side; OK technically it was there first but it does look so out of place it’s a bizarre sight. A restored Roman bridge, old fort with atmospheric cistern, Moorish remains and Forum are also easily accessible within the town centre.


Merida’s Roman theatre


This charming town was my favourite, home to conquistador Pizarro whose statue dominates the main square. Actually, that statue was supposed to be of Cortes, but the Mexicans didn’t want it so it was re-purposed as a Pizarro statue instead. The historic centre of Trujillo is packed full of mansions, including Pizarro’s, as well as myriad churches, towers to climb, a museum about the conquest of Peru and a hilltop castle.


View over Trujillo’s rooftops


The main attraction of this large town is its Ciudad Monumental, a walled old town which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Just wandering amongst its alleyways late in the day was a delight; the addition of a very talented flamenco singer playing Spanish guitar was the icing on the cake. Outside the Ciudad Monumental, the Plaza Mayor was the centre of the action when it came to food and drink, though nearby San Juan had better food. The town also has a hammam with the usual hot, warm and cold baths – massage optional.


Flamenco singer in Cáceres’ Ciudad Monumental

Monfragüe National Park

This, I read, was Spain’s 14th national park but it was the one place I visited that made me gasp. At the Salta del Gitano lookout in the centre of the park, the River Tajo meanders between a couple of rocky outcrops. I visited in the morning and the water was a vivid green – a spectacle in itself but even for someone who can’t see the point of birdwatching, the sight of a black vulture close up was pretty impressive. The winding drive through the park was very pleasant and, if you don’t visit in the height of summer when the temperatures soar, the area is great for hiking.


Salta del Gitano

La Vera

This valley connects a series of pretty little villages, many of them worth a stop. Pasarón de la Vera was my first stop, its setting the main draw. From there, a short drive took me to Jaraíz de la Vera, known for its peppers, and then to Cuacos de Yuste, where the monastery housed the Spanish King Carlos V towards the end of his life. I drove on as far as Jarandilla de la Vera where there was an impressive Roman bridge and several natural swimming pools (a big thing in these parts) before backtracking to Garganta de Olla, a quaint little village with a plethora of half-timbered houses overhanging its narrow streets. Taking the mountain route via Piornal provided the adrenaline rush to end the day – though fortunately by that I mean returning to Cáceres and not going over the cliff edge.


Natural pool on the edge of Jarandilla de la Vera

The ones that got away…

This was my first trip to this region and there were quite a few places I didn’t have time to visit – this time! I’ll be back, one day, to visit Alcántara and its bridge as well as to Montánchez, Monesterio and to Casar de Cáceres for the food.

Watch out for more blogs covering Extremadura in the near future for more on these fantastic places.

Are business class flights really worth the extra?

I recently had the opportunity to travel business class across the Atlantic from London to New York.  I’ve always been of the opinion that I’d rather spend my holiday budget on accommodation and activities at my destination rather than on travel to it.  An opportunity to fly business class with British Airways for less than the price of an economy ticket was too good to resist – more about that in a later post – so for the first time I crossed the pond in style.


So what did I think?

Lounge access

Heathrow’s Terminal 5 has two business class lounges but I was tipped off that South Lounge was the better of the two, so that’s where I headed after a very pleasant fast track security experience.  I was very pleased to find a decent breakfast spread and had several yummy pastries, read the paper, hooked up to the free WiFi and relaxed in the nice padded chairs while I waited to board the aircraft.  All very civilised, though I don’t really mind the bustle of airside especially where there’s somewhere decent to get a coffee.


The thing I hate most about boarding these days?  The fact that because everyone is carrying such an enormous amount of carry on luggage, the overhead bins fill up.  Consequently, there’s a mad dash to get in the queue to board so you avoid having to do a long haul flight with a bag squashed between your legs.  Now this is somewhere that business class scores highly: there are fewer people fighting for bin space and you get to queue jump and board when you like.  Of course the amount of stress in the economy cabin could also be reduced if the carry on weight and size limit was reduced to something sensible as opposed to the current policy of “bring the kitchen sink or the equivalent, we’ll cram it in somehow”.

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Settling in

I was a little nervous I’d show myself up by not being able to work the controls of the flat bed seat.  I’ve only flown business class once before, a short hop from JFK to Dallas Fort Worth after being snowbound in New York for so many days the American Airlines call centre staff just wanted to get rid of me, and in any case that was a regular seat.  In reality, I had nothing to worry about.  Raising and lowering the privacy screen was the hardest part (and not exactly difficult) but the actual seat controls were a piece of cake.  The addition of pink champagne was a bonus.  I broke my own rule of always flying sober, but only because it felt rude not to take the glass that was proffered, you understand.

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Would you like to fly backwards or forwards, Madam?

I’d been advised to try to get a window seat as with the screen up, you were in a little cocoon.  Taking off and landing backwards felt very odd.  That said, the rest of the flight was fine and it was great to be tucked away.  So tucked away, in fact, that when I finally uncurled myself to pop to the toilet (disappointingly cramped), I was amazed to see everyone else lying flat.  If I have to be critical (I feel I ought to be objective), I’d say the footrest was a bit of a stretch.  Oh the hardship!  Her Ladyship had to reach forward a little to put her feet up.

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The food

Oh the food!  A delicious sounding menu was presented.  It basically said I could eat them out of house and home – and then they’d bring me more.  Take a look at the feast that I consumed:

And the invitation to just pig out…  I love the line: “Of course the best thing about tasty treats is eating them rather than reading about them…”  Of course.  Of course!  Pass the Cadburys.

photo 5

Actually, in reality I was so stuffed I could barely shuffle to the Club Kitchen, let alone raid it.  Note to self: if you ever the chance again to fly business class long haul, make it to Sydney or Auckland.  Or at the very least to LAX.


Having reached JFK at least three dress sizes larger than when I left Heathrow, I came down to earth with a bump to join the long queue into the US.  At least the whole of the economy cabin were behind me.  I don’t mean that in a condescending way.  I’m usually quick off the mark out of the plane and walk relatively fast, meaning most of the economy cabin are behind me when I disembark from an economy seat too.  This time, however, with all that free food and drink sloshing around inside me, I had to walk slowly to make sure I didn’t spill any.

The return

Until I realised I could be reclining flat on the outbound leg, I’d been most looking forward to the return journey.  Sadly, this wasn’t to be as good.  Although I was upstairs, supposedly better, I was in an aisle seat – nowhere near as peaceful as being tucked away by the window.  And being one of BA’s sleeper services due to the late departure, I’d planned on eating in the lounge before take off, but found a rather unappetising buffet presented in the lounge at JFK.  If this sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not, any free food is good as far as I’m concerned, but it wasn’t the gourmet experience I had on the outbound leg.  Nor was the service as attentive or as friendly, but in the crew’s defence, we’d had a three hour delay to take off and no one was happy.

photo 2 (1)

So what’s the verdict?

Based on the outbound leg particularly, I’d say you are made to feel very special in business class.  I enjoyed being addressed by name.  It is also a real treat to eat the meals course by course and not have to juggle plastic pots in a confined space.  I loved the flat bed and found it very comfortable; I don’t usually snatch more than an hour or two’s sleep on a standard economy flight and yet on this I was sleeping so soundly I was dreaming.  Fast tracking through security at Heathrow was very welcome.  I’m not sure why the same service wasn’t available at JFK, though in fairness it may have been because of the delays and the need to process everyone as quickly as possible so they didn’t miss their flights.

All in all it was an experience I’d be delighted to repeat, though not one that justifies spending such a huge amount more.  But keep an eye on this blog.  Soon I’ll tell you how I achieved this journey for less than the price of an economy ticket – perfectly legit and no air miles needed.

It’s almost time to go to the airport


Dennis Potter’s famous quote sums it up perfectly:

“I did not fully understand the dread term “terminal illness” until I saw Heathrow for myself.”

Another trip is looming and with it, the love-hate feelings that come with beginning that trip at an airport. A necessary evil, of course, if you’re intending to go long haul and back without taking a six-month sabbatical or trading in a regular job for work on a cruise ship. This time it’s Gatwick. I’m not thrilled about the place, though I don’t feel the same loathing for it as I do for Heathrow.

The immigration hall at Heathrow is the worldly embodiment of hell. But at least I don’t have to face it for a while. I’m OK with Gatwick. Baggage reclaim there is a whole other matter but I must stay strong and limit myself to carry on.

But to return, I first have to leave.

If only I could time it right so I could sweep through the airport and onto the plane in one elegant motion, like cabin crew or Kim Kardashian or something. The reality, alas, is more like the Tom Hanks film The Terminal, where instead I feel like I’ve moved in. My stress level rockets unless I’m at the airport at least three hours before my flight leaves. I usually end up pacing up and down the concourse wandering aimlessly in and out of various retail outlets browsing at things I have no need for and certainly no intention of buying. At least Gatwick has normal shops. I like the kind of shops that can help me out with the essentials I’ve just realised I’ve forgotten to pack: toothpaste and hair bands and excessively large chocolate bars, not stuff like caviar and silk ties and other crap that only rich tourists will be impressed with.

If I’m not de-stocking Boots, I’m buying expensive coffee to ensure I need the bathroom just as the monitor flashes up my flight’s final call. Is there ever a stage between wait in lounge and final call? Even as I tell myself it can’t possibly be a final call as my flight isn’t scheduled to leave for another hour I feel a deep seated panic and race off to the gate to find no boarding is happening whatsoever. With all the travelling I do, I should know better. I really should.

Perhaps the call goes out early so there’s plenty of time to get lost. Douglas Adams, in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, wryly observed that airport planners seek:

“wherever possible to expose the plumbing on the grounds that it is functional, and conceal the location of the departure gates, presumably on the grounds that they are not.”

But at least our British airports don’t conceal the check in desks behind a plain white wall, as the Russians did in Ulan Ude when I visited it. Now that really was a challenge. It takes a really special kind of planner to design an airport like that. I can only assume the sign writer charged such exorbitant prices that the budget wouldn’t stretch that far. For once I was glad I’d rocked up three hours early. It took almost all of that time to find out where to drop my bag.

Should we adapt to a no-frills travel style?

The travel press is focusing on speculation concerning British Airways and its possible policy change in charging for food on short haul routes.  Read more about it here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/comment/british-airways-to-charge-for-meals-budget-airline/

Following the stratospheric growth of the low-cost sector, full service scheduled airlines have had to work harder to attract passengers whose prime consideration is price.  Living close to Stansted and Southend airports, it’s very rare for me to travel to Heathrow or Gatwick (or God forbid Luton during school holidays) unless I absolutely have to, so the likes of easyJet and Ryanair have been my go-to airlines for short hops for a couple of decades now.


Lithuania in the off season

Over the years, bargain flights have taken me to pretty much every country in Europe.  From Kaunas (Lithuania) to Malmo (Sweden), I’ve never let the fact that I’ve not heard of a destination stand in the way of a cheap fare.  And neither have I worried about the extras, happily paring down my luggage and printing off my boarding passes at home to avoid fees that some whine about.  If I can get halfway across the continent for thirty quid, then quite frankly I don’t give a stuff if they feed me or not.  It’s not like most airline food is anything to rave about.

So to be honest, I don’t really understand the fuss.  On the very short flights like, say, London to Amsterdam, cabin crew have to practically throw the food at you to get down the aisle and back before the fasten seat belt signs come back on.  If you’re only in the air for an hour, is it really so bad to do without a drink or a snack?  And if you’re that bothered, buy a bottle of water and a chocolate bar airside and take it on with you.


Tulips from Amsterdam, where they also sell food should you leave the airport hungry

I like these bargain basement fares – and who doesn’t?  I’ve never understood the logic in flying business class on short haul routes (they’re often the exact same seats for heaven’s sake!) or upgrading to speedy boarding (do these people not realise that the plane still won’t take off until the last person’s on too?)

I don’t even care who I sit with.  It’s nice to chat to my travelling companion but it’s not a deal breaker if I’m separated for an hour or two.  It even happened on my Wow Air flight to Iceland to get married, but then my fiance and I were the last to check in so it did serve us right.  Who knows, the person that has the pleasure of my company might be more entertaining.  (Apologies to those who are reading this having been a travelling companion of mine in the past – I don’t mean you, obviously.)


The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik

And therein lies my point.  The travel industry is evolving to cope with a changing economic climate and we need to adapt too.  The days of flying being a glamorous affair reserved for the rich and famous are long gone.  So ditch the suitcase, have a drink before you board and eat when you get there – no frills travel is here to stay!

How to survive a long haul flight

Always wanted to visit that far flung destination but dread the flight you’ll need to take to get there? Sometimes a long haul flight is the hell that has to be endured to reach paradise. If you aren’t lucky enough to fly First Class or have incredible views beneath you through a cloudless sky, you might need my help. Here are a few tried and tested tips for making that journey fly by (sorry, couldn’t resist!)

photo (73)

London at dawn from the air

Drink plenty

Sadly, I don’t mean chug back the wine and pass out. Save the alcohol for your holiday and instead drink plenty of water. Flying is very dehydrating – which means if you don’t keep topping up your liquids, on top of thirst, you risk suffering headaches, dry skin and tiredness. And none of those are conducive to a happy flight. You can keep asking cabin crew for water, but you might be more popular if you buy a bottle of water from the airside newsagents before you board. Pack a travel-size moisturiser to keep your skin hydrated too.

Keep moving

Unless you’re still lucky enough to be a lithe and supple twenty something who can curl themselves up into a ball on take off and stretch like a contented cat as they awake on landing, a long flight potentially means discomfort. Spending a long time in a cramped environment leads to aching muscles and stiff joints. Make a point of getting up at regular intervals to move those legs and you’ll feel much better for it.

Bring some reading material

Forget War and Peace, what I take on a flight has to be easy to read. Eschew the literary classics and think chick lit, trashy magazines and historical sagas. I was so engrossed in Jeffrey Archer’s Clifton Chronicles on a recent flight I barely noticed we’d landed. Make sure the Kindle’s fully charged or go retro and take a paperback. And if you’re taking a guide book, don’t pack it in your hold luggage; plan your trip in the air to maximise time for sightseeing when you arrive.

Save up your correspondence

There are rarely enough hours in the day to fit everything in and it’s not uncommon to fall behind, so I spend some of a long flight writing drafts of emails on my iPad ready to send when I arrive. (Some airlines offer Internet access on board but check the small print to find out how much it’s likely to cost before you connect.) I also use the time to write future blog posts, draft articles for clients and make to do lists.

Make the most of the on-board entertainment

Listen to the album you’ve not had chance to download, engross yourself in that film you failed to catch at the cinema, binge watch addictive TV sitcoms – most airlines have plenty of choice. I also make sure I’ve got lots of games on my tablet so I can pass the time playing Scrabble, card games and Sudoku.

Talk to your neighbour

Whether you’re travelling with a companion or solo, it’s often pleasant to chat. Take the hint though if your neighbour is monosyllabic with their responses – some people might find your inane chatter intensely annoying. And if you’re stuck with the cabin’s biggest bore, dig out some headphones and announce with an apologetic shrug you’ve been looking forward to listening to that album or audio book for ages.

Hit the snooze button

If all else fails, sleep. Beg, borrow or steal an extra pillow and blanket to pad out those uncomfortable armrests and snatch a nap or two.

Why not paying attention to your Geography teacher could cost you dearly

Next time you go online to book flights, be careful. You may end up miles off course if you don’t double check your booking before you confirm travel.  As an ex-Geography teacher myself, I couldn’t help but shake my head in despair at the unfortunate couple who this week made the news as they managed to book themselves flights to Las Vegas from Birmingham Alabama rather than the UK’s second largest city:

Couple book flights from Birmingham airport… What could possibly go wrong?


Vegas, baby!

While it’s a shame they missed out on their dream holiday, it shouldn’t be an easy mistake to make.  Flight booking sites are easy to navigate and cities clearly identifiable.  They’re not the first, either.  I remember a couple trying to get to see their daughter in San Jose, Mexico but who ended up flying to San Jose, California instead:


The flight codes are only one letter different, so if I’m being generous that could have been hard to spot. But then there was the granny who actually wanted to be in San Jose, California but headed to the Costa Rican capital instead:



The beautiful Spanish city of Granada

While many accept responsibility for their mistakes, some just can’t believe it. This American couple decided to sue when they were wrongly routed to the Caribbean island of Grenada instead of the Spanish city Granada:


They aren’t the only ones to fall foul of these two similar sounding places, though at least this granny can claim she was misheard:



Dakar’s colourful boats

I could go on and on.  The internet’s full of tales of people mixing up Dakar and Dhaka, respectively the capitals of Senegal and Bangladesh and located on different continents, Melbourne, Florida and Melbourne, Australia (I’d recommend the latter if you can’t decide which to add to your bucket list), and Paris, Texas with the French capital itself.

So, if your child isn’t paying as much attention as you’d like in school, show them this blog and tell them to pull their socks up, or one day they might find themselves facing an expensive onward flight!

To stopover, or not to stopover?

One decision to be made when working out a long haul itinerary is whether or not to plan a stopover when booking flights.  Here are a few issues to consider which might help you decide.


Boeing Dreamliner takes off

What’s it going to do to the flight cost?

Before making a decision to stopover, check out flight combinations and prices. A stopover including a few nights’ accommodation sometimes makes very little difference to the total flight cost compared to a direct flight. A stopover is classed as a stay of more than 24 hours whereas a layover might be just an hour or two. Layovers can also give you the chance to do a bit of sightseeing during your journey. See if you can extend your layover by taking a later flight to your final destination with that same airline. If the city is relatively close to the airport and if transportation is good, you can see a little of the layover city without it increasing the budget at all. Your luggage will usually be checked through to your final destination leaving you with just hand luggage. This has worked for me several times, most recently in Chicago and in Istanbul.



How much of the world do you want to see?

On both occasions I’ve been to the Antipodes, the best flight deals hubbed through places I’d already visited, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.  Eschewing the stopover didn’t leave me feeling like I’d missed out , but I may have felt differently if I’d never been to the stopover city before.  A trip to Tanzania with Qatar Airways gave me the opportunity for a two-day stopover in the Qatari capital Doha, somewhere I’d not have chosen to visit in itself, but a pleasant stopover nevertheless.  Next year, I’m stopping off in Sri Lanka en route to the Seychelles, a little out of the way but a great opportunity to see more places without vastly inflating my budget.



How will you cope with double jet lag?

If you are travelling east over any distance then you’re going to be hit by jet lag. There are things you can do to help alleviate symptoms, including trying to eat and sleep according to the new time zone before you arrive and keeping hydrated during the journey with plenty of water, but the fact remains, jet lag is a very real possibility. On my trips to Australia and New Zealand, I’ve opted for a quick change of flights rather than a few days’ stopover. Why? So I suffer the dreaded jet lag once rather than twice. Admittedly by 4pm on my first day in Sydney I was punch-drunk with fatigue but after a good sleep I was raring to go the next day. In Auckland a few years later, prepared for the same thing, I enjoyed a pleasant day exploring Ponsonby before hitting the hay at 7pm for a decent night’s rest. Again, the following morning, I was fully refreshed and ready to tackle the city instead of facing another long flight. Choose a layover airport with plenty of facilities, such as Singapore’s Changi or Kuala Lumpur International, both of which have airside hotels. You can book a bed or take a shower while you wait for the second flight, and get that horrible journey out of the way in one hit.


Auckland’s Sky Tower

How much time do you have for your holiday?

If you’re heading long haul for a long stay holiday such as a gap year, then a few weeks exploring somewhere on the way doesn’t make a big dent in the time you’re going to get at your destination.  But if that holiday is restricted to the two or three weeks you’re going to be able to get off work, then you need to think about where you really want to spend it. Ask yourself whether your stopover days will prevent you seeing something amazing at your main destination, or give you the chance to see something equally amazing en route that you’d otherwise have missed.

Australia Sydney Opera House at night

Sydney’s iconic Opera House

Are you likely to get the opportunity to go back?

For some, a long haul trip will be the adventure of a lifetime, and likely to happen only once.  If that’s the case, then stopping on the way to your main destination might be the only chance you’ll have to explore that part of the world and as such, you might be foolish to pass up the chance.  If it’s somewhere that frequently shows up on flight deals websites or is a popular package holiday destination and thus relatively cheap, you might be tempted to ditch the place as a stopover for now and go there later on for a longer holiday.

Thailand Old temple in Ayutthaya

Ayuttahaya, Thailand

Are you unsure about whether you’d like the place or not?

Taking the opportunity to make a stopover in a city is a good way to find out if you like the place enough to book a longer holiday or not. Sometimes, this might be clear beforehand; it’s possible to stop in Reykjavik, the Icelandic capital, on the way to certain North American destinations, but in my opinion, this incredible country warrants more than a couple of days. But if you’re unsure, then staying just a night or two in a place gives you a taster, enough to help you decide whether to tick it off the list or to go back for a more leisurely visit.


The Sun Voyager statue, Reykjavik

Finally, a win against CityJet

Last July, I flew in to Paris from Lima, Peru with Air France to connect with a CityJet flight back to London City Airport. I checked in as normal at Orly airport on 4 July and made my way airside.

No indication anything was wrong

At check-in there was no indication anything was wrong

Noting that the information board didn’t yet have a gate number, I took a seat and read a magazine. After a while, I thought it would be wise to check if the flight had been allocated a gate and was puzzled to see that fifteen minutes before the scheduled take-off slot, the flight had disappeared from the screens. There were no CityJet ground staff around and after asking a few airport employees, I decided to go back landside to find out what was going on.

At the check-in desk, I managed to find out that the flight had been cancelled “for technical reasons”. I was told that there was no way I’d be able to get back to London that evening as the Heathrow and City flights were all full. The CityJet employee was apologetic but when asked for a solution, gave a Gallic shrug and basically told me there was none. A couple of businessmen in the same predicament joined me and received the same treatment. Eventually, a supervisor was called who repeated that there was “no solution”. Eventually, after some heated debate, he acknowledged that it was CityJet’s responsibility to get us back to the UK and suggested that we go on standby for the following morning’s flight – but that it was possible we wouldn’t be able to travel as the flight wasn’t showing sufficient spaces.

To cut a long story short, the only way of a guaranteed return to London was to take the train to Gare du Nord and take Eurostar at our own expense – and under EU rules, claim compensation for the cancelled flight. To do this required the return of our checked luggage. At first, we were told it was waiting on the carousel, but it wasn’t and no member of ground staff knew where it was. Having booked a Eurostar ticket on the understanding I’d be able to leave the airport pretty much immediately, I then had a nail-biting wait for the luggage to be tracked down followed by a mad dash across Paris. I caught my Eurostar train with five minutes to spare.

My Eurostar journey was a very pleasant experience

My Eurostar journey was a very pleasant experience

Back in the UK, I submitted my request for compensation. Having been given a slip of paper at Orly with a handwritten note reading “ticket of the flight can be refound (sic)” I didn’t envisage any issues, even if it had been incorrectly dated as 4 June. I filled in the relevant form from CityJet’s website, attached scans of the relevant receipts and tickets and waited for a response.

Airlines should give you a written notification of a flight cancellation

Airlines should give you a written notification of a flight cancellation

Nothing happened for several weeks, until I received this reply on 21 August:

Dear Mrs. Hammond Johnson,
Thank you for contacting CityJet.
We write in response to your email regarding your flight incident and we would like to apologise for the inconvenience caused on this occasion.
Having studied your file, we inform you that the incident was due to a technical issue. Such cases are considered as extraordinary events for which we cannot be held liable according to the European Regulation 261/2004.
We therefore regret to inform you that we cannot agree to your compensation request.
We hope your subsequent journeys with us will be to your full satisfaction.
Kind Regards,
CityJet Customer Care

Not to be fobbed off, I visited the Which? consumer guide website, which suggested that there was a relevant court case appeal being heard regarding Jet2. Basically, if the appeal went in the customer’s favour rather than that of the airline, technical issues would no longer be classified as extraordinary and I would be entitled to 250 euros in compensation. I decided to wait it out. In November, I read online that the ruling was what I’d hoped for and so I used the Which? template to create the following letter:

24 November 2014
Dear Sir/Madam,
Reference: WX024
I am writing to you in connection with the above flight on which I was booked to travel on 4 July 2014.
The flight was supposed to depart from Paris Orly at 1710, but was cancelled fifteen minutes prior to take off.
When I tried to get compensation under the EU Denied Boarding Regulation 261/2004, I was told I was not eligible because the cancellation was caused by an extraordinary circumstance.
Technical problems are not extraordinary circumstances unless they are the type that you could not expect to encounter when operating a flight.
The decisions made in the Wallentin-Hermann vs. Alitalia case 2009 and Jet2 vs. Huzar case 2014 have confirmed that routine technical difficulties are not extraordinary circumstances. Although Jet2 appealed the ruling, the decision was upheld in November 2014.
I am entitled to the sum of 250 euros compensation and look forward to receiving the sterling equivalent within the next 14 days.
I attach a copy of the ticket and previous correspondence I have had with your airline,
Yours sincerely,
Julia Hammond Johnson

Ensure any written correspondence can be tracked

Ensure any written correspondence can be tracked

I posted it recorded delivery as suggested and waited. Weeks passed and I heard nothing. I sent an email to CityJet requesting an answer to my letter. The following day, I received this reply:

Dear Mrs. Hammond Johnson,
I write in response to your email from Saturday, January 31, 2015.
We take into consideration all the emails sent to you previously from our colleague Veronica on the 21 August 2015 regarding your request for the compensation of your flight cancellation.
At that time as per the European Regualtions EC261/2004 technical issue was classified as Extraordinary events which was not eligible for any compensation. Your compensation request was denied in August before the decision regarding technical issues was amended. Therefore your case was close in August 2014 and the decision was made in November 2014.Taking into consideration the European Regulations at that time you are not entitle to any compensation.
On this occasion we must deny your request for compensation.
Yours sincerely,
CityJet Customer Care

Unimpressed by CityJet’s attempts to wriggle out of their legal obligations, I sent this terse reply:

As you are well aware, the ruling in November applies to flights going back up to six years. You are therefore not legally entitled to deny my request for compensation under British and EU law. I am quite prepared to take this to court and to the media, neither of which would do anything good for CityJet’s image.
Please reconsider the request. Surely 250 euros is better than the negative publicity which would be generated. I have no intention of dropping this matter.
Julia Hammond Johnson

It did the trick. I received this email response almost immediately:

I write in response to your email from Tuesday, February 03, 2015 whereby you explain you have experienced a flight cancellation.
We are pleased to inform you that we agree to offer you the full compensation amount of Eur 250.00.
In order to answer to your request, we would be grateful if you could send us the following documents by responsding to this email
•Complete bank details including the IBAN (International Bank Account Number),
•Swift code / BIC,
•the full name of the Account holder,
•bank name including address
We are looking forward to read from you.
Yours sincerely,
CityJet Customer Care

It made me chuckle – the first line of Kaminee’s response giving the impression that no previous correspondence had taken place. I did as I was asked and was promised compensation within 21 working days. I am pleased to report that the money was credited to my account on 4 March, eight months to the day after the flight cancellation. Other than the fact that the value of the euro has taken a nosedive against the pound during that time, I am happy with the result. Together with the refund I received last July from Opodo (with whom I booked) for the unused flight leg, the compensation I received covered the cost of my train journey back to London.

What have I learnt from this?

Firstly, know your rights and make sure any correspondence you send quotes the relevant court rulings. Secondly, keep all your receipts and paperwork, taking scans to send if your complaint is made via email. Thirdly, where you have to use the regular mail, ensure you use recorded delivery so that you can prove your letter was received and on what date. Finally, I’ve decided that I won’t be travelling with CityJet again – any airline can be forced to cancel a flight, but CityJet’s deliberate attempts to avoid paying out compensation and its lack of integrity as a company mean that I shall choose to take my business elsewhere in future.