I confess I have never taken Ryan Air before. It’s something I have avoided up till now. But with the collapse of Alitalia, Italy’s national carrier, the shorter flights in and around Italy that were once covered by the National carrier have disappeared. And so, in came Ryan Air. We were flying into Corfu, Greece from Rome. There was no other option but Ryan Air. And off we went out to Rome’s other airport, Ciampino, for my Ryan Air flight to Corfu. It was strange to be in Ciampino. The ride out along the Via Aurelia is stacked with Columns and ancient discards. There are the catacombs and scattered treasures. In the distance are the Alban hills and there was Rome’s other airport, Ciampino. About 8 miles from the city center. And there was Ryan Air. A hub airport for this carrier. I heard the stories of jammed seats, toilets you must pay to use, rude staff and nonexistent service onboard. Bags you must pay for, etc. What a pleasant surprise! We paid for extra leg room and the flight was pleasant. Staff were nice. Bags checked and arrived intact and on time. Maybe it was the luck of the Irish but honestly, it seems better than Alitalia. Which is not saying much but…
Firstly, I love British Airways. I love the familiarity and the staff. From check in to on board service, it’s always excellent. Fact that I fly mostly out of Boston makes it even more intimate. Station managers, Nick and Carol, are simply awesome. In any service industry, staff and friendly recognition are key reasons for customer loyalty. That’s what you get from the Boston team.
They have a new fancy lounge at BA in Logan. It’s nice and offers easier access to the plane but unless you’re desperate to save money, I prefer to stay outside the lounge and grab a bite at Legal Seafoods. A nice addition to Terminal E departures.
The only gripe I have on BA is with the night flight. It’s too damn short. Tonight it logged in at 5 hours and 40 minutes. Let’s forget about food. It means after takeoff and prep for landing you can’t grab more than two hours sleep if you’re lucky. And I use all the tricks. Bose noise cancelling heads sets, eye shades and a sleeping pill. Two months ago I flew Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. 11 hours. Time for dinner, a movie, and six hours of sleep. Maybe that is the way to go to get to London. A little overshooting of the metaphorical runway and a late arrival in London…but sleep! I’ll take the day flight on BA next time.
The London to Venice flight on BA is always a treat. Once you clear the cloud cover of England, you have the beautiful Alps to greet you. No matter how many times I cross the snow capped peaks, it never ceases to amaze. This year has seen tons of snow. Still, the beauty was way up high. Below it was cloud and rain and down into another gray day. But it was Venice!
I love the slow descent into the airport here. The shape of the island, the clock tower, the canals clearly visible…It’s such a strange place. Such a trip. It’s the only place where everyone on the plane looks out of the window. It’s a wow. You want it to last forever.
Venice Upon Arrival
And then the bubble burst. Immigration was a mess. There were two people for hundreds of arrivals so it took a while. It was pure Italian theater. Nobody had a clue. The immigration officers looked in no rush at all. People were getting frustrated. It was one hour before we got to our bags!
Then there was the slightly complicated journey to the motor boats. The Venice Marco Polo Airport has recently had renovations so getting to the motor boats that bring you to the center of Venice is a new experience. It’s quite complex and not obvious to the newly arrived passengers. You have to go up the escalator to departures. Ugh. What?! And then you lose the sign. It just disappears. So, use your instincts, look for a sign, do anything. But then it pops back into view! There is a long walk along a moving escalator and down into the speedboat taxi area.
There is the usual confusion here (something’s never change!) but it is worth the wait because now it’s the greatest ride in the world. Across the lagoon and through a narrow canal and then it hits you. The grand canal. The Santa Maria della Salute, the Doges Palace, and the Piazza San Marco.
Venice in Winter
There is plenty of rain in the winter and the boards are stacked high for the Acqua Alta. In the distance the Alps beckon with snow painted across the horizon. San Marco is busy with tourists and umbrellas which always reminds me of a Prendergast painting.
I wandered back to the hotel across a couple of delightful bridges. Watched the gondola guys organizing their business and took a moment to study their technique. I tried being a gondolier once. It’s impossible! The oar, the movement, the control. It amazes and mesmerizes. Dinner later would add the final touch. Black ink squid with spaghetti.
The dreaded overnight flight dropped me into the gray skies of London too early. It was freezing. I grabbed the Heathrow Express and rushed across town from Paddington to Soho for a lunch with a business associate. We arranged to meet at the Duck and Rice on Berwick Street. Great Chinese in Soho. The dim sum are out of this world. I followed that with a quick pub visit to see a dear friend around the corner at the Lamb and Flag pub on Perry Street. I had to keep moving despite the jet lag kicking in. Then I had a fab evening with a whole bunch of university friends over in Fitzrovia.
Got to say, London is the greatest. Stick to the areas of Fitzrovia, Soho, or Covent Garden and you can’t go wrong. They are stocked with restaurants and pubs and people. It is just such an easy place to sort out a venue for getting together.
I left Soho House, the brand new one on Greek Street, super cool and beautifully redesigned, far too late for an early morning flight to Venice. Sleep could wait.
On my travels back from London, I was stranded without a flight and so I went looking for the best deal in business class from London to Boston non-stop. That’s when I discovered Norwegian Airlines. At $650 one-way, their business class competes very well against the main carriers in terms of price (approximately 75% cheaper). However, would it really be 25% of the experience then? It was worth taking the risk and anyhow I had heard so many interesting things about Norwegian that I knew I had to try it.
Norwegian is the third largest transporter of passengers in the low-cost sector of the European airline business. It sits behind Ryanair and EasyJet. They run around 30 million passengers per year and they started their long-haul operation in 2013. Unlike WOW Airlines, who also have incredibly inexpensive fares, Norwegian provides a business class experience for travelers that would like to pay slightly more.
Norwegian operates out of London Gatwick Airport. Getting there involves an easy train link from Victoria Station to Gatwick directly. The train service is great, is relatively inexpensive, runs every 15 minutes, and takes about 30 minutes to get there. Norwegian operates out of the South Terminal which in actual fact is the first airline you encounter as you come out of the train station. Thus, there is no need to take another train transit to the North Terminal. You are straight in and straight out. Incidentally, security lines at Gatwick, at least in the South Terminal, are fantastic compared to those at Heathrow. There is virtually no wait time and it’s highly efficient. Norwegian even has a lounge right in the extensive shopping area. Although I only could spend 10 minutes there, it was satisfactory.
So, how was the flying experience?
London to Boston is around a 7.5 hour flight and the Boeing Dreamliner is used exclusively on this route. I love that plane. In economy, all of the seats looked fine with enough leg room. In business, I had a ton of leg room although the seats did not go back into a full bed. However, for a day flight, I would never usually use that feature anyway. The seats were a little light on padding but not a problem. The food was basic and came in a box but it was fine. When is airline food ever more than fine anyway? The service on board was fantastic and everyone had a great attitude. The entertainment center was decent as well. I always carry my own headsets on a plane and it was quite easy to find the plug to connect on this flight. That is something I can’t say about most other airlines I fly with.
How good was it? Well, on a scale of 1-10 based on $650, it was a 10. Would I take it again? For $650 you bet! I loved it!
When I was a kid in the UK, I used to listen to the shipping forecast on the radio late at night. It felt cozy and reassuring when I was tucked in my bed and thinking of all these ships bobbing around in the harsh waters around the northern parts of the UK and beyond. It has become quite a famous institution in fact. At the London Olympics it was played along with Elgar’s Nimrod to denote Britain’s maritime heritage. There were updates of mysterious places like Tyne, Dogger, German Bight, Fair Isle and the Faroe Islands. I had no idea where most of these places were but like most youngsters in the UK, it became part of every Brits upbringing and it still beams out across the air waves today. This summer I decided to go visit one of these places; The Faroes. I had never been and had not much of a clue exactly where it was.
Getting there is not easy. Perched between the Outer Hebrides and the southeast tip of Iceland in the inhospitable waters of the Atlantic ocean, there is no direct service from London or many other European gateways. You can fly quite conveniently from Copenhagen or Reykjavik on SAS or Air Atlantic (the Faroe national carrier). We chose SAS and that was probably our first mistake in trying to get there.
It’s a two hour and 30-minute journey from Copenhagen. The runway at Vágar Airport in the Faroe Islands is small. It was a cloudy day and when we finally arrived, after some delay, the pilot felt encouraged to make his descent. But the cloud cover ultimately was too much for him. As we descended, I felt the surge of the engines as he pulled out of the landing. After circling above for 10 minutes, he informed us he would have to go back to Copenhagen.
Yes, that really did happen.
According to the locals, only travel on Air Atlantic as the Faroe pilots know how to land in cloud cover on a short runway. That was advice I wish I had earlier!
The next day we tried again. The weather was much better and the views were spectacular. As we descended, the archipelago of 18 islands suddenly appeared as we dropped onto what seemed to be a 50 yard runway that is cut into the edge of a steep cliff. We had made it and so the adventure began.
I have been thinking a lot about Canada recently. We just opened our trips to Canada for school groups and it has already grown in extraordinary fashion. It seems as though Canada is on everybody’s “Places I’d like to Live” list. The healthcare is good, college is great and practically free, and there’s lots of open space. In addition, it has mountains for skiing on both the east and west coasts and a train service that connects the savvy traveler across the country with arguably one of the best rides in train travel that there is.
So, there’s more good news about Canada. The USA dollar is strong – about 25% more than a Canadian dollar – which also means that Air Canada has started to become an interesting player for international travelers. Air Canada has strengthened its Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver hubs, and have made it easier for USA passengers to transit through. As everybody knows, when you pass through Canada on the way to the USA, then you clear customs in Canada. Given the state of the lines at immigration here in the USA, that is a massive boost so as a connect destination it’s a player.
What else does Air Canada have to offer? In addition to the good service and cheaper prices, since every single air trip that travels between the USA and Europe or Asia has to pass over Canada anyway, the transoceanic part of the journey is cut down. The fleet that Air Canada uses has been refreshed with new Boeing 787s and 777s and it has lie-flat business class seats on every long-haul flight. Consumers are giving them the thumbs up by flying them. Increased passengers gives Air Canada the leverage to open up more flights and more access points into the USA.
So, I guess it’s not just the healthcare, the fabulous education, and the quality of life. In addition, it’s about a transoceanic experience that just got better.
Here’s a confession, I like to travel at the front of the plane. But guess what, who doesn’t?
We work on getting our points up, we stay on airline routings that are not necessarily optimal, and we do this all so that we can boost our points with one airline. This way we collect millions of points! But then usually we squander them on a $200 Amazon gift card.
As everyone in the points business knows, you never use your points for small dollar items. You use your points to get to the front of the plane on long-haul flights and the airlines know this. The business of flying in business is changing though. A continental business class roundtrip ticket used to cost $2,600. With JetBlue and its Mint service, that price drops by $1,000. Frankly, from a service point of view, JetBlue can easily take on the United’s and American’s of this world. In fact, they have done so successfully that United and American have been dragged screaming into the lower cost option. The problem for these guys is that they have high cost infrastructure and nothing to sell except for creaky old planes and cranky staff. Good luck with that.
Given the recent state of events, it’s not surprising that TSA is tightening its grip on the security checks at airports. There’s not just the possibility that we all may soon have to travel without our computers, but at the screening stage it looks as though we are headed to a process that has us separate the contents of our bags into different bins. The days of simply removing your liquids and creams into a separate bag may soon be over. Now there are going to be bins for jackets, belts, shoes, creams, liquids, plus paper and electronics. If you’re traveling, it probably makes sense to unclutter your bag. The more stuff that you have floating in that thing, the more likely it is that they will want to look inside it. That is what will cost you time and hold up the lines.
In addition, TSA is becoming super diligent on the two bag carry-on rule. I ran into a problem the other day at Logan Airport and had to quickly unzip my main bag and put my man bag inside of the main bag because I had a backpack as well. Of course, all of this is good as it is all planned to make us safe and secure when we fly. This always bring me to the question – why don’t more people apply for TSA Precheck or Global Entry? None of the rules that apply or are shortly to be launched will affect TSA Precheck.
That brings me to the last thing, airlines do a phenomenal job of screening passengers. Soon they will be able to determine through government issued ID whether you have a reason for them to be suspicious. Where is Amtrak in all of this? Take the Acela from Boston to New York or New York to Washington; a well-trafficked route and you wonder why they do not institute an x-ray machine and an ID check before you get onto the train. It’s not perfect but it seems in this ever security-concerned world that it would make smart dollar sense to invest in something here.
Incidentally, TSA has assured us that the extra security checks they are putting in place will be tested not just for security but also for speed for consumers. You almost wonder why people that fly on planes are not forced to get global clearance.