It won’t be long before I take to the air again, to Entebbe, Uganda with a stop in Brussels to pick up some Leonidas chocolates for my mum. (That’s what I’ve told her, anyway. In reality the Brussels Airlines flight was cheap and BA unhelpfully canned direct flights in 2015.) I took my first flight in 1970 aged just nine months, though I remember little about it. I’m told my smiling baby face calmed a few nerves. Some flights in the intervening period have been more memorable.
My first long haul flight was in 1992, to the Venezuelan island of Margarita. I don’t remember much about it, if I’m honest, but I think I’d have flown with the now defunct VIASA, the Venezuelan flag carrier, to Porlamar. There, I met an Italian and a few months later jumped on a plane to Turin to visit him. I’d flown short haul a few times as a child, but it was still enough of a novelty to be exciting, particularly when the pilot asked if there were any children on board who would like to visit the cockpit. At 23, I wasn’t going to let a small thing like age stand between me and a treat such as that, so I asked the cabin crew if I could go too. I was allowed, though I had to wait until all the children had been first. That turned out to be serendipitous – by the time I got my turn we were over the Alps.
It was New Year and the Italian’s mother sent me home with a Panettone. Sitting in Turin Airport, I left it as long as possible to say my goodbyes, not realising that there would be no intercom announcements. I was the last to board and did the walk of shame down the aisle towards my seat, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. As I reached my seat, another passenger asked if they might swap with me to be able to join a friend. I agreed, only to find myself on the back row. In those days, smoking was permitted for those seated in the last two rows and I suffered the consequences all the way back to London. It’s hard to imagine a return to a smoke-filled cabin but in those days the dangers of passive smoking were only just being documented.
I’ve never experienced turbulence severe enough to cause injury, and hopefully never will. The closest I’ve come is on a flight into Juliaca, Peru in 1995. The airport lies at about 3800 metres above sea level and serves the nearby tourist town of Puno and Lake Titicaca. I should have expected a bumpy landing – like Chicago, Juliaca is nicknamed the Windy City because of its location, on the blustery Collao Plateau. I was grateful for a seatbelt and even more grateful when the pilot made a successful landing. At least I didn’t vomit. I remember very little of the Nazca Lines which I flew over that same trip with my head in a sick bag. If you’re planning to make the same flight, I have only one piece of advice: don’t down a bottle of Inca Kola before you take off.
In 2005, I visited Luang Prabang in Laos and to reach Hanoi, my next destination, I needed to take a flight with Lao Aviation. The airline had a disastrous safety record. Since 1990 it had reported five serious crashes, most with fatalities. Planes had crashed into airport buildings, clipped trees in fog, come down in dense rainforest or onto mountainous hillsides in heavy rain and even crashed on the runway in strong winds. As we took off from Luang Prabang, the fuselage began to shake alarmingly and smoke started to seep into the cabin. I did wonder whether my luck had run out. But we landed safely in Vietnam and the only casualty was a bottle of rice wine that had smashed in the overhead compartment, leaving a pink sticky mess over all my belongings.
To date, I’ve only missed one flight, excepting those times when a connecting flight’s been late in. At the end of that same trip, I’d finished up in Thailand and arrived at Bangkok airport in what I thought was good time for that evening’s overnight flight back to the UK. Unfortunately my timing left a lot to be desired, and I’d actually arrived 21 hours late rather than 3 hours early. Luckily, a sympathetic check in agent got me on the next flight without charging me extra for my mistake.
Finding check in was more of a problem when I flew back from Ulan Ude in Siberia to Moscow in 2009. Arriving at the airport, I breezed inside to find I couldn’t see a single check in desk. All the signage was in Russian, using the Cyrillic alphabet, but even with a phrase book I couldn’t match the symbols to anything relevant. I’d managed to get all the way across Russia without incident, yet I couldn’t do something as simple as check in for a flight. My attempts at miming and making hand gestures were met with shrugs from bemused passengers and staff. In the end, I noticed someone go through an unmarked white door in an unmarked white wall. It turned out they’d hidden the check in desks. Behind the wall, as if in a parallel universe, check in procedures were happening as normal. To this day, I have no idea why, nor any clue as to what the purpose of the other hall was and why so many people were queuing in it with their bags.
Perhaps the most memorable flight of all was the best flight I’ve taken: the time I flew business class with BA to New York in 2016. The experience is already documented on this blog, so I won’t repeat the story. But much as I enjoyed that flight, I have to admit, it makes for a better tale when things go wrong, doesn’t it?
Why I’m not thrilled at Stansted’s expansion plans
A few days ago Uttlesford District Council approved plans that would see Stansted grow its passenger numbers to 43 million a year. The news comes hot on the heels of a press release announcing that the airport had just experienced its busiest October ever. 2.5 million passengers used the airport, up almost 9% on the same month in 2017, bringing the annual total to over 27 million. It’s good news for the local economy, with an already buoyant job market fuelled by such growth. Stansted claims that 5000 new jobs would be created by the continued expansion of its facilities. An increase in flights, with some long haul routes now offered, increases choice and offers an alternative to driving over an hour further to Heathrow or Gatwick.
So why am I unhappy?
First, it’s not a case of NIMBY-ism. Though Stansted airport is my nearest, it’s still a forty minute drive away. By the time Stansted’s planes fly over my home, they’re at such an altitude that noise pollution isn’t an issue. I’m not affected by increased traffic, nor am I impacted by any kind of blight on house prices, though I’m sympathetic to those who are.
No, my concerns lie with the airport experience. I travel fairly frequently and time spent at the airport is a necessary evil if I am to do my job. My recent experience of Stansted hasn’t been a positive one, with issues cropping up every time. Parking is the first problem. I remember not so long ago being able to turn up to long term parking without having to pre-book. Clearly that’s not the case anymore, not just at Stansted but elsewhere too, just as you don’t generally have the option to drive up to drop off in front of a terminal free of charge either. But a fair number of my Stansted visits are day stays – and long term parking at Stansted has a minimum three day stay. Mid term is often full, leaving me with a fee of £30 or more to park at short stay. (Living in a small village I don’t have a public transport option.) I appreciate that with increased passengers, rationing spaces by cost is the logical solution. But allowing this day tripper to use the long term parking would reduce my parking cost by a third.
Inside the terminal, it’s common for the space to be excessively crowded. Once, this Norman Foster designed building was a pleasure to transit. Now, with the security gates shifted from the back of the terminal to the side, it has become a veritable obstacle course. The queues first thing in the morning usually reach the gates, and sometimes extend beyond them. Security staff seem less friendly than in other airports and occasionally rude. Management, to be fair, do listen but there does seem to be a need for training. My luggage “fails” at a disproportionately high rate compared to other airports. I have no idea why. It’s not like I pack differently for those journeys. On one occasion, a staff member moved my coat to cover my iPad, necessitating a manual check “because your items were stacked on top of each other”. On another, I was told that my wheelie case required an additional check because it had been placed “at the wrong side of the bin” – I wasn’t aware there was a wrong side of the bin and neither was the manager I spoke to afterwards.
Security eventually navigated, the queues funnel through the duty free and shopping area. The space is narrow and littered with passengers and bags. The main holding area is also rammed, partly because gates aren’t announced until late on. Stansted have tried to tackle this, not by clearing out the clutter, but by closing the airport overnight in an attempt to foil travellers who plan to sleep stretched out across several seats. A long term programme of investment to the time of £600m and significant expansion is underway. The sooner that has an impact the better. Right now I feel more stressed waiting for my Ryanair flight to be called than with the boarding process. Yes, you did read that right – Ryanair’s part has generally been the best part of the whole process. If that doesn’t jinx December’s flight, I don’t know what will.
So forgive me if I’m not dancing with delight at the news Stansted is going to get even busier. If by some miracle, Ken O’Toole, Stansted’s CEO, happens to read this, then please think carefully about how you plan for all these additional visitors. The good news is that your airport surely can’t get any worse.
How to see the Bahamas’ famous swimming pigs
The Bahamas consists of around 700 islands, cays and islets strung out like jewels on a necklace in some of the shallowest, most turquoise waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Most of these islands are uninhabited. Those further from Nassau, the country’s capital, are known as the Family Islands or Out Islands. The Exumas draw visitors for snorkelling and watersports as well as film makers – James Bond’s Thunderball was filmed near Staniel Cay and Pirates of the Caribbean on Sandy Cay. Johnny Depp liked the place so much he even bought his own private island nearby. He’s not alone. The Bahamas has a higher number of privately owned islands than anywhere else on the planet.
But when it comes to celebrity residents, even Hollywood stars are eclipsed by the Exumas’ famous porcine residents. No one knows for sure how pigs got to Big Major Cay, but these days they are the Exumas’ biggest draw. Around twenty or so pigs live on the beach, charming the pants off the steady stream of tourists who come here to swim with them. The proximity of Big Major Cay to Nassau makes it possible to visit for the day, even if you’re stopping off as part of a cruise.
It’s a popular trip but doesn’t come cheap. Many operators offer excursions. A flyer from Exuma Escapes in our hotel room offered a day out by boat for a special price of $359 per person, which included a 150 nautical mile round trip by speedboat, plus stops to see not only the pigs but also iguanas and to snorkel with nurse sharks. We ruled this out as it was billed as a bumpy ride and not suitable for those with bad backs. To take a smiliar package by air would have cost $550 per person which pushed it well out of our price range. Though you’d have an hour with the pigs and another with the sharks, the return flight would be at 3pm and so with check-in advised over an hour before, that would cut into the day considerably.
Fortunately, I read about a company that would unpackage the trip. We contacted Staniel Cay Vacations whose website http://www.stanielcayvacations.com/tours/ lists a number of options including a pigs only boat trip for $50 per person (minimum 2 people). Booking flights separately with Flamingo Air at http://flamingoairbah.com/ cost us $240 per person. We flew out of Nassau on the 0800 flight, arriving before 0900 and departed at 1700, with check-in required by 1530. We needed to fund our own transport to the airport and lunch at Staniel Cay, but still didn’t pay what we’d have needed to shell out for a tour.
Our boatman, Mr George, was waiting for us at the airport and pointed out Thunderball Cave as we passed. We didn’t see the iguanas like the tour groups do, of course, but while we were enjoying an al fresco lunch at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club a frenzy of nurse sharks clustered around the boat dock. We ended up with plenty of relaxation time at Staniel Cay – spent lazing under a shady tree on the beach and watching the boats come and go from the marina.
Best of all, we were ahead of the tour groups at Big Major Cay and had the pigs to ourselves for a while before another couple of boats arrived. This in itself made the day. Mr George had brought food along so we were able to feed the pigs while in the water.
Of course, we took a small risk unpackaging the tour but were fortunate that the flights were pretty much on schedule. Monique was responsive and helpful, answering emails promptly and making sure we were all set. Feeding the pigs was fun and watching them swim was a memorable experience. Mr George kept a close eye on us and made sure we gave pregnant mama pig, who had a tendency to bite people’s bums, a wide berth. And the piglets were cute too, the youngest just a couple of weeks old.
Would I recommend the trip? Definitely. It didn’t come cheap, but was an unforgettable experience and worth evey cent.
To recline or not to recline?
That is the question that has provoked a storm of impassioned comments this week after the Telegraph announced that British Airways was introducing 35 new planes on its short haul routes with non-reclining seats. Here’s the original article:
The ensuing headlines screamed that BA was fast turning into a low-cost carrier, but that’s not what people have been arguing about. A survey by Skyscanner in 2013 claimed that 91% were in favour of banning reclining seats on short haul flights:
Reclining seats on long haul planes are a boon, particularly on overnighters. Economy class is cramped, and let’s face it, we’d all happily upgrade if funds permitted. But for many of us, the choice is to fly economy or not fly at all, so we fold up our legs and get on with it. It’s one of the few times when I wish I was young again. The ability of millennials to tuck themselves up and nod off to sleep for eight straight hours is something I now struggle to achieve in a full sized double, let alone a tiny aeroplane seat.
But that whole cramped arrangement gets a whole lot worse when someone in front reclines their seat into the space in front of my knees. I’m not especially tall, but I do have long legs, so a battering to the kneecaps is a real possibility. I pity 6 footers. I read this week that one man was left with bleeding knees after someone reclined without warning. It’s all very well saying that you have the right to use the space – after all, you’ve paid for that seat, recline and all – but if someone is going to get hurt in the process, surely there’s room for some give and take?
In the States, planes have even been forced to divert over legroom wars. This report from the Telegraph written in 2014 refers to the Knee Defender, a product that’s still on sale, as the trigger for an air rage incident that necessitated an unscheduled landing.
Surely it’s better to put up with a bit of discomfort than to have your travel plans severely disrupted – and even face charges? It’s a shared space; there has to be a bit of give and take. I don’t expect someone to turn round and ask my permission to recline, but but I do appreciate it when they do so slowly so I have chance to grab my drink and rearrange my legs first. Likewise, while it’s perfectly OK in my book to recline on a long haul flight, I don’t expect to be eating my meal with no space for a tray table and so always ask the flight attendant to have a word with the person in front if they haven’t yet reclined.
But on short haul flights, is it really even necessary to have the facility to recline? Perhaps I’ve been conditioned after years of flying with Ryanair, but I just don’t even think about it on a short flight. I’m hopping over to Amsterdam this month and there’ll barely be enough time to sit down, let alone recline. Even on the longest short haul flights of around four hours, it’s not really a hardship to sit up straight. If I’m stiff, I can walk around the cabin to stretch my legs. However, for those hubbing through Heathrow, they’ve already come off one flight and don’t need the discomfort of a cramped second leg.
So this news isn’t a deal breaker for my relationship with BA. And of course, no one’s forcing anyone to fly BA. You can choose not to do so and opt for a different carrier. That said, you probably won’t find yourself sat next to me on BA any time soon, not least on one of their short haul routes. It’s not the cull on free food or even the IT disasters that have left passengers stranded. No, it’s price. The budgets are still usually cheaper, even more so for me when I factor in the additional cost of getting to Heathrow over Stansted.
But for those banging on about reclining seats, well, I think it’s the shape of things to come. Airlines have been forced to change to stay in business. The rise and continued popularity of the low cost carriers prove that people are happy to unpackage their fares and pay only for what they need. I think BA’s making a smart decision to ditch the reclining seats and make room for additional paying passengers. But will you be one of them?
Review of Thomas Cook Airlines
I’m no stranger to low cost flying, but it’s been a long time since I’ve flown with an airline which made its name catering for package tourists. So what’s it like to fly Thomas Cook Airlines?
I chose to fly to Cape Verde, and at the time of booking, I was flexible about which of its nine inhabited islands I would fly to. The only direct flights from London were with Tui (formerly Thomson) and Thomas Cook Airlines. I could have flown with scheduled airlines but it would have meant an indirect flight, such as with TAP via Lisbon. The flight times were convenient too, with an 8.05am outbound option and a 2.45pm inbound flight. Flying on a Wednesday worked for me, though to get a daily flight option I’d have needed to fly indirect. From LGW Thomas Cook Airlines fly in winter; in summer the only flights offered depart from Manchester. But with November temperatures in the late twenties, the islands are a good choice for a winter break, if a little windy.
Though the base fare was reasonable – and even more so now November is almost over – the airline’s pricing model worked on getting its passengers to pay for add-ons. Some of these prices were pretty steep. £10 for each sector secured you a hot meal, a suitcase was £25 each way and allocated seating cost from £13 per leg. I opted just to take a suitcase, given that the carry-on dimensions (55cm x 40cm x 20cm) and, especially, weight limits (6kg) weren’t sufficiently generous for a week-long holiday. This would be higher on the all-inclusive Economy Plus tariff but the price difference was significant, making it poor value for money. I didn’t choose the seat allocation and was randomly allocated a middle seat in each direction. A polite request with the check-in staff got this changed to an aisle seat both ways, but of course this can’t be guaranteed.
On-board service and comfort
The Sal flight operated on an Airbus 321. Legroom was 28″, 2″ less than on a Ryanair short haul flight. On this six-hour mid-haul flight, that’s cramped, and I was glad of the aisle seat to be able to get up and stretch my legs frequently without disturbing other passengers. Service on board was excellent, the cabin crew without exception polite and professional. Ground staff also conducted themselves well. Many travellers were on package holidays and thus met by a member of the Thomas Cook team, but as I had booked a flight-only option I had no interaction in this respect.
There’s an entry visa requirement for UK travellers headed to Cape Verde and this currently can be purchased for €25 on arrival. So long as Advanced Passenger Information (API) is completed via the Thomas Cook website 7 days or more in advance, this is paid for by the airline even if you are on a flight-only booking. There’s no need to queue at the visa desk on arrival, saving you time when you get there.
Would I travel with Thomas Cook Airlines again? I was impressed by their punctuality and professionalism. However, the lack of flexibility in their schedule and the steep cost of extras means this wouldn’t be an airline I’d consider travelling with again, unless like this route, all the scheduled options were indirect flights.
Why you should do your homework before booking a flight
I had an interesting conversation with a lady the other night about the financial situation of airlines. A number of airlines have made the news recently for the wrong reasons, including Monarch and its demise. Her take on things was that it would have been perfectly reasonable to book with them because they’d been around for so long and if you’d travelled with them before, it would be unnecessary to check them out because you would know they were OK.
I had a different opinion. Monarch’s financial woes over the preceding few years had been well-documented in the press. Anyone doing even the most rudimentary of Google searches would have thrown up a number of articles filling out a picture of money troubles and the importance of the end of September deadline to renew its ATOL certificate. But given that hundreds of thousands of travellers were caught out, I’m guessing my expectation that people wouldn’t shell out hundreds of pounds without checking out the robustness of the company was inaccurate.
What’s also interesting is that following the whole Ryanair mismanagement debacle, many people assume that Ryanair is in a difficult position financially. According to industry business analysts, however, it’s not. The graphic on this link reveals that they think it’s in the best position of any European airline when it comes to the risk of going bankrupt:
If the Dow Jones researchers are to be believed, then it might be an idea to be think carefully before about booking a flight with Turkish Airlines or Pegasus at the moment. I’ve flown with both and had excellent experiences but last year business was difficult for both of them. The former posted a 2016 loss of $77 million, the latter $36.1 million. You can read more at:
But then in the case of Finnair, they seem to be doing significantly better than their position on the chart would suggest. Though Dow Jones suggest they fall into the “In Trouble” category, this article appears to refute that speculation:
Personally, I’m being cautious over booking with Norwegian at the moment. Their rapid long-haul expansion is, in my book, cause for concern, given the history of low-cost airlines and trans-Atlantic flights in particular. I also wonder whether it’s a coincidence that after they announce the commencement of a London to Singapore route, Qantas cans their Dubai layover on their London to Sydney route and goes back to making Singapore their stopover destination.
Whatever your own take on the situation (and I’m not advising you to follow my lead), Norwegian Air currently have a lot of new planes to pay for and face plenty of competition. Norwegian Air’s CEO has been quick to counter that the airline is in good financial health, but this Reuters article also references the potential impact of their CFO quitting in the summer:
I’ll stick to my earlier assertion: if you’re planning on booking a flight, do a little research on your chosen airline first. Take the sensible precautions: make sure they’re ATOL protected where that applies (charters and packages in general terms), pay using a credit card as your outlay will be protected if the flight is over £100 and consider taking out scheduled airline failure insurance in situations where you wouldn’t be covered if you didn’t.
Monarch’s collapse: your rights
Sadly, this morning’s headlines that Monarch has collapsed wasn’t shock news. The company had been in trouble for years, with several bailouts brinking it back from the brink of collapse on more than one occasion. Once, it cleaned up on routes to Tunisia, Turkey and Egypt, but had been badly hit by the slump in tourist numbers to those destinations in the face of terrorist attacks. Its Greek business was hit by the economic crisis and in response, it turned to the saturated markets of Spain to try to balance the budget.
It’s the largest UK airline ever to fail. That’s no consolation for the estimated 110,000 people stranded or left with their holiday plans in tatters. This collapse affects at least a further 300,000 people who are due to fly, perhaps more.
What to do if you’re on holiday with Monarch right now
Sit tight. For those booked with Monarch Holidays, the CAA are negotiating with hotels so that you can stay. If you are asked to pay a bill, keep receipts. The CAA are saying they will reimburse you, though the end date for this is uncertain as yet. If you are due to fly home, the CAA are putting on flights to get you home.
A webpage has been set up by the CAA to provide information to travellers. Find it here:
On this website there are details of flight rebookings. Click on the airport you are travelling back from and it will open up the flight number and timing of your new flight. At present, just today’s flights are up, so if you’re due to travel in the next few days, you’ll have to check back later.
If you’re in the UK but have a future Monarch flight or package holiday booked
The CAA’s advice is repeated here:
Flights booked directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward
Customers with these bookings are not ATOL protected and are not entitled to make a claim to the CAA. You are advised to contact your card issuer, insurer or PayPal for advice on how to claim a refund.
I add: if you have booked using a credit card and the cost of your flight is £100 or more, you are covered. (If you book a return flight, the cost of the total must be over £100, i.e. each leg can be under £100 so long as when combined they’re over.) The credit card company will reimburse you. If you have booked with a debit card, you might be able to get your money back via something called Chargeback; contact your issuing bank for details. If you have specific cover for airline failure in your travel insurance policy, this is also a route for recovering your money. Note that this isn’t a standard clause on many insurance policies.
Back to the CAA:
Flights booked on or before 14 December 2016 directly with First Aviation Ltd trading as Monarch Airlines
If your flight was booked with Monarch Airlines on or before 14 December 2016 and you received an ATOL Certificate stating that your flight is protected with First Aviation, you are ATOL protected. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made as soon as possible to these UK customers.
We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until advised to do so.
Bookings made directly with Monarch Airlines from 15 December 2016 onward are not protected by ATOL.
I add: ATOL protection refers to the Air Travel Organiser’s Licence. Basically it ensures you don’t lose your money or get stranded abroad if the company responsible for getting you home goes bust. You receive an ATOL certificate with your holiday paperwork. What happens is that companies lodge money with the CAA in case the CAA has to step in and get their passengers home. Monarch’s ATOL licence ran out on September 30th and as they couldn’t afford to renew it, they were forced to call in the liquidators.
If the ATOL-bonded company goes bust, you apply directly to ATOL for your refund. The CAA website explains what to do, as reproduced here:
Holidays booked directly with Monarch Holidays
Customers booked directly with Monarch Holidays are ATOL protected and will have received an ATOL Certificate when they made their booking. We are making arrangements for refunds to be made on these bookings as soon as possible, and we aim to complete this by the end of 2017 at the latest. We will be providing more information on how you should claim shortly. You will be able to submit a claim when we make the Monarch claim form available. Please do not submit a claim until you are advised to do so.
Monarch flights and Monarch Holidays booked through another travel company or travel agent
If you booked a flight or holiday with another travel company or travel agent you should contact them directly about your arrangements.
What to do if you’re impacted by Ryanair’s cancellations
If you’re affected by Ryanair’s announcement that they are cancelling many hundreds of flights over the next six weeks, you’re going to need to know your rights. This is how the news broke:
If your outbound flight has been cancelled at short notice:
First, see if you can rebook. According to Ryanair’s website, this should be possible online. People are reporting on social media that the Ryanair helplines are overwhelmed and they’re not able to complete a rebooking over the phone. Obviously with so many people chasing so few seats at short notice, many are going to be disappointed. So what then?
If you cannot find a satisfactory rebooking (e.g. your flight is being rebooked but so late into your holiday to make it as good as useless) then you’ll need to apply for a refund. You may also be entitled to compensation. These are your rights under EU law if the destination is within the EU or if it’s an EU carrier like Ryanair:
Flights under 1500km – 250 euros compensation
Flights over 1500km – 400 euros compensation
Note: this only covers you if your cancellation occurs 14 days or less before your flight. If you are due to travel in more than 14 days’ time and your flight is cancelled, this will be treated by the airline as a rebooking or rerouting. You still have the right to cancel with a full refund of what you paid for the flights, but will not be eligible for additional compensation.
Delayed arrival whether with Ryanair or alternative carrier
Flights under 1500km – 2 hours
Flights over 1500km – 3 hours
If you are delayed, you are also entitled to food and accommodation vouchers. Full details here:
Note that it can take many months to secure this compensation, despite EU regulations stating refunds must be paid within a week. Remember you will need to keep all receipts and boarding passes. It’s also a good idea to send letters recorded delivery if you are getting nowhere by email.
If you decide not to travel, have a look at what expenses you’ll incur, such as accommodation that cannot be cancelled at short notice. The airline is not liable for this. It will need to be claimed back from your travel insurance company. Making a claim such as this doesn’t affect your right to EU compensation if applicable.
If you’re abroad and your inbound flight has been cancelled:
The above applies but you’ll also have to factor in whether you need to be back home as a matter of urgency or can afford the time and money (up front at least) to extend your trip. You might find it easier to deal with staff face to face at the airport though this can add to your stress as there will be a lot of other angry passengers there which isn’t going to make you feel better.
You can try to persuade the airline that rebooking you with an alternative carrier e.g. a seat on a rival airline is a better idea. You’ll have more bargaining power if the airline itself is very tight for space and is struggling to get you somewhere, especially if you’re stranded and they’re having to pay for your overnight accommodation. Remember if you pay for your own alternative flights, you’re out of pocket.
It can be very hard to get them to pay, as I found out with CityJet a few years ago. CityJet refunded their own flight (that they cancelled fifteen minutes before departure) but because I didn’t want to wait for an alternative with CityJet or spend another night in Paris even at their expense, I paid for the Eurostar alternative. I eventually funded it out of the compensation I received eight months later. Read the full story here:
If you can get through on a helpline, that is often better, but you will need to be patient. Be as calm, polite and flexible as you can, particularly if you need to get back home in a hurry. Remember the person on the phone isn’t directly to blame and venting your frustration isn’t going to get you anywhere.
If you’ve a flight coming up which is currently unaffected:
This currently is where most Ryanair passengers are, fortunately, and the social media furore should calm down for the most part now that people know where they stand. Nevertheless:
Have a Plan B. Research alternative airlines or other means of transport on the inbound leg. Check your email on a regular basis so that if your flight is next to be affected, you’re amongst the first to know – and fight for the seats that might be available on alternative flights.
Print out or save to your phone a copy of the EU regulations (see link above) so that there can be no dispute with airline staff about your rights – it will be in black and white.
Double check your travel insurance, especially the limits and excesses for flight delays and flight cancellations. Again, keep all receipts and boarding passes as you’ll need them to make a claim. Keep proof of the cancellation.
Ryanair’s lack of consideration for their customers, though not a surprise, is still a concern. They won’t be the first and last airline to do this. I’ve had similar late in the day cancellations from American Airlines (weather related issues leading to a 48 hour delay in New York when I should have been in Nicaragua) and as mentioned, with CityJet (who didn’t even inform us the flight was cancelled, just checked us in as normal and quietly removed our flight from the departures board). But for the record, Ryanair, you need to remember who keeps your staff in a job and your planes in the air.
Update 17 September from the excellent Simon Calder at The Independent:
Update 18 September of full list of cancellations on the Ryanair website:
Ryanair’s baggage changes penalise those already booked
Today Ryanair have announced that from 1st November, their policy on cabin baggage will change. Currently, up to two bags can be taken on board, one of standard dimensions (55cm x 40cm x 20cm) and one smaller item (35cm x 20cm x 20cm). Currently, a small wheelie fits and can be stowed in the overhead bins, while the smaller bag, perhaps a day sack, can be placed under the seat in front. On busy routes, some passengers are asked to place their larger bag in the hold free of charge.
Today Ryanair have announced changes to their policy. Basically, customers opting not to pay for Priority Boarding will lose the right to take some of their carry on with them as they board the plane, instead handing it to staff to put it in the hold.
I have two Ryanair flights coming up, one in October to Venice and one in December to Salzburg. My Salzburg flight will be affected by the changes. I was planning to take a bag that was smaller than their maximum dimensions but slightly larger than those of a smaller item. Now, I have to either rethink the size of that bag or pay a £6 priority boarding fee for each leg to be able to take the luggage I planned. The Ryanair website states that the policy will be introduced on 1st November for all travellers, regardless of when they’ve booked.
That’s not playing fair. We took out the contract and now the details are unilaterally being changed. If I take the bag I planned, and the policy is implemented as per the rules, I’ll either have to check it at the gate free of charge and incur a delay when I arrive waiting for luggage, or risk being denied boarding. So effectively, my flight has gone up by £12 if I wish to take the luggage I planned. Had I paid for Priority Boarding at the time of booking, it would have cost £5 each way; to do so retrospectively it will be £6 each way.
I understand why Ryanair have taken this step. The amount of luggage being dragged on board is reaching ridiculous levels and boarding is a much slower process because of it. But it does seem underhand to introduce a change to existing bookings without notice. Will this be the end of my love affair with Ryanair? Probably not. Do I feel like I’ve been cheated out of £12? Yes. The Ryanair haters are going to have a field day with this, and for once, rightly so.
Are you affected? Full details from Ryanair’s website here:
Border control queues in Europe – and how to beat them
Today’s news has been full of horror stories of British travellers caught up in excessive queues at some of Europe’s busiest airports. If you haven’t seen it, try this article from the BBC:
Sadly, though changes in legislation have worsened the situation, it’s nothing new. Miss your flight, and you’ll find the airline and the airport pass the blame back and forth, leaving you frustrated and potentially out of pocket. So what can you do?
Take out a decent insurance policy
Many travel insurance policies will cover you for missed departures, but check the small print in case there are any exclusions. Also check the amount covered – and work out whether this is going to be sufficient to cover a night in a hotel and the cost of a replacement flight.
Get to the airport early – and don’t wait for your gate number to be displayed
Queues for security are going to be lengthy in peak summer season, so you should be aiming to get to the airport in plenty of the time regardless. But once you’re through security, you need to go through passport control too. In some airports, this can be tucked away in a quiet wing of the airport serving just a few gates.
If your gate isn’t displayed early, by the time you start to line up, you may have cut it too fine. I almost missed a flight from Malaga to London a couple of years ago for this very reason – so don’t risk having to be very un-British and queue jump like I did. And if I pushed in front of you and you’re reading this, I’m very sorry – and hope you made your flight too!
My advice is to go through passport control even if your gate isn’t displayed on the boards – if there are multiple passport controls, in my experience the border control officials will redirect you. Just look suitably apologetic as I did and make sure you head off in the right direction.
Consider booking a package
If you book a package holiday with an operator with has its own fleet of planes, such as Thomson (other operators are available!), then the same company is responsible for getting you from the hotel to the airport and from the airport to Britain. At the very least this is going to reduce the buck-passing.
Have you any tales to tell? I’d love to hear your experiences.
Everything you need to know about flying
The title’s a bit of an exaggeration – at the very least a work in progress – but I’m in the process of creating an index for my blog posts. Here’s the first instalment. With years of independent travel under my belt there’s a lot of advice I can share about airlines and air travel. From finding business class flights at fares lower than economy to what to do if your flight is cancelled, there’s a blog to help.
Tips for saving money on flights
Cabin baggage charges
What to do if you miss your flight
How to travel business class for the price of economy
Are business class flights really worth the extra?
How to survive a long haul flight
What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?
Thoughts on airports
Transport options from Heathrow to London
How to get the best from a Heathrow layover
Getting your money back if your flight is cancelled
The increasingly thorny issue of cabin baggage
Airline Jet2 are in the news this weekend, with an article in the Daily Mail highlighting their new policy of charging for guaranteed cabin baggage. You can read the article here:
I was a little suspicious, given the propensity of the Daily Mail to be economical with the truth, so I did some fact checking. Buried within the Jet2 website, and revealed as far as I could see only after you have reserved flights and are well into the booking process, is the opportunity to pay extra to keep your bag with you:
Subject to availability, you can pre-book “guaranteed cabin baggage” for an extra charge, and if you have purchased this service, you will not be asked to put your hand baggage in the hold (unless it exceeds the weight and size requirements detailed above or operational requirements apply). If we require your guaranteed cabin baggage to go into the hold for operational requirements, you can contact customer services to arrange a refund for any charges which you have paid for this service.
I tried a sample booking of a flight from Stansted to Dubrovnik. The cost of ensuring your cabin baggage made it into the cabin with you (subject to those operational requirements not being necessary, of course) was £3 per person per leg, a little more than the £2.59 quoted in the Mail’s article.
Would you pay it?
I’m not sure I would. But then I’ve rarely taken a suitcase on board and instead prefer to check it or, better still, leave it behind. I find it irritating to wait while wheelie after wheelie bangs its way down the aisle, though with airlines charging to put such luggage in the hold, I can hardly blame those doing so. But this not only slows boarding, it often means that there’s too much luggage to fit. I’ve taken many a Ryanair flight – the airline guarantees only the first 90 carry on bags will make it on board – and watched it all kick off as people are asked (or not) to hand over their bags. My fairly small day pack has always made it on board, I presume because it can fit between my feet and wouldn’t have to be placed in the overhead bins.
Wizz Air, it would seem, have had to backtrack on their plans to charge for guaranteed larger sized cabin baggage. You can take on a bag of up to 42x32x25cm free of charge, but to carry on an item up to the maximum dimensions (55x40x23cm) there’s a price to pay. Until 29th October 2017, this can be anything from 10 to 20 euros according to the small print on their website (35 euros if you take care of business at the airport), but this add-on disappears after that date, supposedly incorporated into the price of your seat. Have Wizz caved under the pressure of customer complaints, I wonder?
At this point, you’re likely to be muttering things about budget airlines, but they’re not the only offenders. Increasingly, scheduled, so-called full service airlines are supplementing their fares with extra fees and charges. And when it comes to revenue “earned” by such add-ons, you might be surprised to learn who the worst offenders are:
Some airlines are worryingly reliant on additional revenue as a share of their total earnings. You can read the full report here:
So, even on a scheduled airline, if I want to select my seat in advance (and even as a solo traveller I might, or risk being stuck in that middle seat that no one wants) I’m likely to have to pay for the privilege. At the moment at least, I’m not likely to have to hand over my carry on luggage but who knows how long that might last?
I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this. As travellers, if we’re determined to do so on as low a budget as possible, we’re going to have to think hard about what we really need to take with us. I shared my packing tips here:
Taking large suitcases will perhaps become a luxury rather than the norm. It will certainly be interesting to see if Jet2’s new policy lasts the distance, and if it does, whether other airlines will follow suit.
What are your views? Would you pay to ensure your bag comes on board with you or do you think it’s one rip-off too many? I’d love to hear what you think.
Just back from: a day in Ibiza
This, perhaps, wasn’t going to be one of my usual days out. A few days before I was due to fly – out of Stansted at 7am on a Tuesday – an email arrived from Ryanair announcing certain restrictions on the flight.
Amongst other words of caution, it said:
• Customers will not be allowed to carry alcohol on board and all cabin baggage will be searched at the boarding gates.
• Boarding gates will be carefully monitored and customers showing any signs of anti-social behavior or attempting to conceal alcohol will be denied travel without refund or compensation.
For a moment I wondered what I had let myself in for. In the event, though we did have a stag party on board, they were very well behaved and remarkably quiet. The plane was too, empty seats an indication that some of our passengers had fallen victim to one of Stansted’s worst mornings for queues at security I’d ever seen. I’d made the flight in good time and jetted off on time to the hippy isle with a row of three seats to myself.
Arriving slightly ahead of schedule, I picked up a hire car and set off on an itinerary I’d found on the Ibiza Spotlight website. As my main focus of the day was to be a trial of a Sunwise kaftan, I’d originally planned to hole up at one of Ibiza’s stylish beach clubs and chill out all day. In the event, my geographer’s curiosity got in the way and I just couldn’t resist the chance to go exploring, especially up in the north of the island where the agricultural landscape was more verdant and prettier than the south. That said, I needed to be in the sun, so there were going to be plenty of stops.
The first was supposed to be in Santa Eulària des Riu, Ibiza’s third largest resort. Incidentally, road signs are in Catalan, though my map was in Spanish, with this particular resort being Santa Eulalia – mostly the names were similar enough for this not to be confusing. I’d read about an excellent ice cream parlour called Mirreti’s. Reaching the town, I decided it just wasn’t my kind of place: too busy and lacking charm. I drove straight through, headed for Sant Carles de Peralta.
This small village, dominated by a delightful whitewashed church, was the perfect spot for a stroll in the sunshine. There wasn’t much to see, but I’d been tipped off about a cafe called Bar Anita across the road. I spent a pleasant half an hour sipping a cold drink in the warm sunshine, watching the world go by.
Onwards and northwards, as the hire car wound its way around the back lanes following the Cala de Sant Vicenç coast road for a few kilometres before ducking inland across the Serra de la Mala Costa. Turning north at Sant Joan de Labritja, I snaked across country on a tiny lane which led to the resort of Portinatx on the island’s rugged north coast. Smaller than Santa Eulària des Riu but nevertheless a resort, it was more my scene and I had a wander to explore.
Back in the car, I drove back to Sant Joan, this time via the main road and on to my next stop, another village dominated by a magnificent church, Sant Miquel de Balansat. Sited on top of the hill, this whitewashed church is impossible to miss. It’s the second oldest on the island, after the cathedral and like the one in Sant Carles, had three crosses on the front wall, something you’ll see on all the churches on the island, the symbol of Golgotha. The painted chapel walls are very special. This bronze sculpture outside also caught my eye.
But by now, I was getting hungry and so drove the few kilometres to Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera. This was my favourite of all the villages I stopped at, and I feasted on jamon serrano and queso manchego in the sunshine, choosing a spot opposite the church.
Somehow the village managed to hang onto its character despite its popularity with day trippers. I had time to browse in a few boutiques before they closed for a siesta and I hit the road again.
This part of Ibiza is greener than the scrubby south and I drove across the countryside towards Santa Agnès de Corona, known as Santa Ines in Spanish. I passed olive groves, almond trees and orange trees laden with fruit. Ruined windmills completed the agricultural scene.
The road layout here forms a circle, so it as it was such a fine day, I decided to backtrack a bit and go for a short hike. My target was the hidden fishermen’s cove of Es Portitxol, said to be one of the prettiest spots on the island.
The road was in pretty poor shape, so I parked up and picked my way down the lane on foot. When I saw poor shape, it looked like a digger had gone rogue and there were great rifts gouged out of the stones. I wished at that point I’d had on walking boots rather than sandals, as it was hard going. The path did level out for a while and led through a shady forest; alongside were sweeping views over the ocean and towards the cove. Improperly clad, I decided to bail before I ripped my sandal straps, but had I continued, I’d have been rewarded with one of Ibiza’s hidden gems. Ah, next time.
It was time to head into Eivissa, the island’s capital. I’d seen the cathedral and fortifications of its Dalt Vila or old town as I’d passed earlier, and now it was time to explore on foot. Luck was on my side when it came to finding a parking space; yellow spaces reserved for workers become free for anyone who finds them empty after 4pm.
For anyone whose experience of Ibiza is solely the lively mass tourism resorts and club scene, Dalt Vila is the very antithesis: elegant, ancient and impressive. The thick wall and fortifications once protected Eivissa from marauding pirates; now they provide lofty vantage points from which you can admire the Mediterranean and watch the fishing boats bring their catch in, trailing clouds of seagulls in their wake. This defensive settlement dates from the 7th century BC when the Phoenicians founded the city, though the walls themselves are even older.
Today, Dalt Vila is threaded with alleyways and tunnels which, unsigned, invite you to partake of a lucky dip; when you step through the doorway, you might have no idea where you’ll emerge. I popped up in the Plaça d’Espanya for a time. One of the tunnels here was a Civil War refuge; Ibiza was Republican for a time before Franco stepped up his campaign and occupied the island, forcing the Republicans to flee.
In the Plaça d’Espanya traders were setting up a mediaeval fayre which should, according to the road signs, have opened three hours earlier but looked like it was still a while off. From there, I climbed a little further to the cathedral, its fussy architectural details contrasting with the simplicity of the whitewashed churches I’d seen in the villages.
Overlooking the marina, it was a good place to perch on a wall and soak up both the sun and the view. Refreshed, I wandered the streets of the old town for a while before ducking randomly into a tunnel and emerging some considerable way beneath them. I took it as a sign and headed back to the airport.
Outbound: Ryanair STN to IBZ departing 0700 with a scheduled arrival time of 1040 (we were about 20 minutes early)
Inbound: Ryanair IBZ to STN departing 2140 and arriving at 2320 (also early)
Flights available from £19.99 each way.
Car hire with Alamo purchased through the Ryanair website was a little over £30 for the day; airport buses into Eivissa cost 3,50 euros each way.
Have you seen my other blogs on days out by plane? They’re perfect if you are desperate to travel but can’t get the time off you need for a longer trip. You’ll be surprised at how much you can do in a single day. For how to visit Amsterdam, Belfast, Bremen, Budapest, Lisbon, Regensburg and Copenhagen for the day from London, please follow this link:
Flight news: Honduras
While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected. Honduras is one of those places. But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker. When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey. Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders. (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.) But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.
Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety. But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall. Copan Ruinas is one such place. I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region. Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.
While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come. It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island. It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.
When are we going?
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.
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.
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?
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just back from – a day trip to Bremen
Regular readers may recall previous posts about days out I’ve done by air:
- to Amsterdam https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/01/26/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-amsterdam/
- to Lisbon https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/20/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-lisbon/
This time, Ryanair are in the hot seat and it’s off to London Stansted for my flight to the north German city of Bremen.
Flight times, for once, are very convenient. The outbound flight departs at 7.55am and is scheduled to arrive in Bremen at 10.20am. It’s a short flight with a one hour time difference. The only downside is that you hit Stansted at peak rush hour. Don’t be tempted to rock up too late; the queues for security are long and just as tedious as anywhere. Of course, with Ryanair your boarding passes are already printed and as it’s a day trip, there’s no luggage to worry about. If you are tempted to shop before you take off, Stansted offers a buy and collect service and you can pick up your shopping on your way back in. Coming back, the flight’s at 9.20pm, but the ten minute tram ride from the city centre and the diminutive size of Bremen Airport mean that you can get away with leaving as late as 8pm. Touchdown at Stansted is scheduled for 9.45pm though we were a little late.
After a take off delay of fifteen minutes or so due to earlier fog at Stansted, I passed swiftly through passport control at Bremen’s tiny airport. Ryanair use a separate terminal. It is as pared down as Ryanair users would expect, but the advantage of being apart are of course that there is no one else to share the passport queue with. In less than ten minutes from the wheels hitting the tarmac, I was through the airport and off to find transport into the city.
Getting to the city
Bremen Airport is obscenely close to the city centre and by far the easiest method of getting there is by tram. Exit the Ryanair terminal and turn right. Walk past the main terminal and ahead of you is the tram stop. You’ll need Tram 6 marked Universität which departs every ten minutes. The fare costs 2,70 euros. You can either buy your ticket at the machine at the stop or hop on board and buy one from the tram’s machine. Small notes and euro coins are accepted – don’t go trying to use a 50 euro note as it won’t let you. It’s only a few minutes to the Domsheide tram stop. Alight there and you’re a minute from the cathedral, town hall and main square. The tram then goes on to the main train station.
A network of buses and trams can take you all over the city. The Bremen tourist board have produced a series of very useful PDF guides which include a very clear street plan as well as a map of tram and bus routes. I downloaded these onto my Kindle app before setting out, but you can of course pick up paper copies from the tourist information desk when you get to Bremen if you prefer a hard copy, or they’ll send them to you through the post on request. Here’s the link: https://www.bremen-tourism.de/information-material
Much of the city centre is walkable as it is a compact place, but if laziness or inclement weather strike then it’s handy to know which tram to jump on and the guides also detail opening hours and which buses or trams to use. As with the airport tram ride, fares are 2,70 euros for a single but you can also buy a day pass for 8,90 euros which also gives you discounts off some of those city’s must-see attractions.
How to spend the day
First stop for me was the obligatory pose with donkey, dog, cat and rooster. The famous bronze sculpture resides beside the town hall. You’ll see donkey’s front feet are well worn – it’s considered good luck to give them a rub. The four creatures are Bremen’s mascots if you remember the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale.
Next, I walked through the main square. The Rathaus (town hall) was under wraps which was a pity as it is a splendid building minus its scaffolding. It’s UNESCO listed and it is possible to take tours of the inside. The cafes in the main square are tempting and I can recommend coffee and cake of course. Duck behind the Schütting (Guildhall), which sadly isn’t open to the public, and you’ll come across Böttcherstraße which is the marvellous Art Deco creation of a famous local coffee manufacturer. If you can, time your visit to coincide with the chiming of the hour at the House of the Glockenspiel (look up and you’ll see it).
A short stroll from Böttcherstraße took me to the Schnoor quarter. This is one of the oldest neighbourhoods in Bremen and was once where the sailors hung out. The name Schnoor comes from the low German “Snoor” meaning string, which could have been a reference to the way the old houses line up or perhaps to the making of ropes or nets for the ships that passed through here. The area’s very touristy but worth a visit nevertheless.
Still in Schnoor, I had a schnitzel lunch in Beck’s; if you get there early enough you can bag the table with the window out onto quaint Wuste Statte. Flipping the main meal to lunchtime makes sense; most restaurants offer reasonably priced lunch menus and the local cafe culture lends itself to an early evening coffee or an aperitif with a cake or snack before you leave.
Wandering the streets of the Schnoor to walk off lunch was a delight. There, you’ll find many artists and artisans, but for me the delight was the intricate detailing and artwork that formed part of many of the buildings. It’s very important not to rush and also to look up, or you’ll miss them.
From the Schnoor quarter, it would have been logical to move on to Viertel, but as the sun was shining I decided to take a boat trip up the Weser instead. A 75-minute round trip cost 10,50 euros and was rather pleasant, passing the Docklands area of Uberseestadt. Boats depart from Schlachte. Look out for the Beck’s brewery and also some famous names on some of the factories and warehouses: Kellogg’s and Primark among them. With little wind and a clear sky, there were some lovely reflections on the water.
Back on dry land, I walked up to the park that lines the northern edge of the city centre. There’s an old windmill on a hill overlooking the park which was the perfect stop for a cherry juice: a cooling breeze to take the edge off a humid day. Because of the weather, I opted to catch a number 10 tram to Viertel. It’s one of Bremen’s more Bohemian neighbourhoods: think Notting Hill but not quite as affluent. There’s some fantastic street art to be seen, a few shops selling vintage clothes and furniture as well as plenty of decent cafes. I was glad of one of the latter when a thunderstorm brewed suddenly and equally glad when it was short lived.
Strolling back through the Schnoor, the thunderstorm had an unexpected silver lining. Crowds of tourists typically frequent the narrow streets but even though the sun had reappeared, people were slow to venture out again, so I almost had the district to myself. A meander to the main square for a coffee and it was time to head back to the airport after what had been a very pleasant day. The hot weather had prompted me to take it easy, but there is a lot more to see in this Hanseatic city. I could have taken a tour of Beck’s brewery, seen how Mercedes-Benz make cars or ponder whether modern works of art have as much value as their earlier counterparts. Another time, I think. This place is worth another visit.
For more on Bremen, check out my previous blog on the city here https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/beautiful-bremen/.