Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

London: The Rest of the Story

Christmas and New Year celebrations with family followed my return home from London in mid-December until now. Here, finally, is the rest of the story.

Only a lost soul could fail to find fascination with Central London around Christmas. My few days on foot in and around Mayfair were uplifting. Recovering from the shock that posh areas of London real estate no longer support more than a paltry number of traditional English pubs, I settled into the routine of dining at fast-paced shops like Itsu (fresh, delicious Japanese fast food, a new take on the Pret a Manger business model).

The Millennium Hotel London Mayfair continued to disappoint in small ways. Like being nibbled to death by ducks, a series of little things galled me. First, it was the bait-and-switch tactic of refusing my early check-in request, instead trying to make me pay for an upgraded room that was miraculously available while my standard room was supposedly not ready. Then the heating failed around midnight during a cold snap and wasn't fixed until almost 24 hours later. I was given an electric space heater to tide me over.

The bank of three hotel elevators never seemed to be sufficient for demand despite going up just 8 floors and the hotel not being fully booked. The hotel service providing Internet connection to my laptop double-charged me, or, rather, said it did on screen. When I called the business center for help, no one knew exactly what to do. "Take the matter up when you check out, and tell them not to charge you," I was told confidently. In the end the hotel comped my ISP charges because they could find no record of them when I did check out.

Two high spots at the Millennium: On a rainy night I was offered a complimentary umbrella for my walk to dinner and told not to worry if I lost it, and I found the depressing-looking lobby bar to have a very nice staff which took pride in delivering genuine service. None were English, which I found typical everywhere in London. The manager was Filipino, and the waiters came from Latvia, Macedonia, and Italy.

On the whole, however, I could not recommend the Millennium Hotel London Mayfair again. A short stay several years ago brings back fond memories, but not so this one. In addition to not receiving good value for the money spent there, the property is a wee bit shabby and frayed and not up to first class standards for such a location.

The journey home was divided into three parts: the cab from the hotel to Paddington Station; the Heathrow Express train ride Paddington to the airport; and the flight itself.

Whereas the taxi inbound stuck to city streets and took about ten minutes to reach my hotel, the driver to Paddington took me on a wild goose chase that chewed up 30 minutes to Paddington and cost double on the meter what I paid arriving London. He knew I wasn't happy about the delay and accepted his fare sans tip without a protest.

I had left the hotel early at 8:00 AM for my noon flight just in case. Lucky I did, because the next leg on Heathrow Express was also delayed. Our train left Paddington late without an explanation, and I noticed some people were fidgeting already and murmuring about being late for their planes. Regulars take the 15-minute train schedule as an article of faith, apparently.

Then the train stopped numerous times en route to Heathrow, resulting in a mild panic among the train's patrons. The driver finally came on the P.A. and announced a train had been sidelined due to a fire earlier in the morning and was left sitting on the tracks ahead, dead and impeding the flow of trains between Paddington and Heathrow. She apologized for the delay, but that didn't go over well on board because it didn't get us to the airport any sooner.

Having left Paddington at 8:48 AM (scheduled departure apparently had been 8:30 AM), we arrived Heathrow at 9:31 AM, about three times longer a journey, once moving, than Heathrow Express explicitly promises. I stood out of the way as the doors opened and the wild-eyed sea of humanity exploded onto the underground platform and then bolted en masse for the elevators and stairs. Once again I was glad I'd left early.

Once off the train I stopped by the Heathrow Express ticket window to see about a refund (Heathrow Express promises one if they are late). I was told no refunds are given if the delay is "not our fault."

But it was your train that caught fire and was left dead on the tracks after the passengers had been evacuated earlier in the morning, I said. Well, the nice lady explained, the passengers on THAT train DID receive a refund, but not patrons of ensuing trains. I failed to see the logic of her official line, but I knew a lost cause when I saw one, and departed to find my flight.

The night before I was delighted to find an email informing me that my business class upgrade came through on American Airlines for my nonstop LHR/RDU flight. It was worth the miles and the $350 to escape coach, where every seat was filled. AA has a dedicated check-in area for premium customers (first and business) at Heathrow Terminal 3, and I made my way to it. It's a strange small glass-enclosed area jutting out from one side of the terminal and not easy to spot.

Once inside, the bitter cold morning air followed me and dozens of others as the automatic glass doors stayed more open than closed. I found lines at the two check-in counters open and joined one. By the time I received my boarding pass, it was past 10:00 AM.

I cleared security (this was before the mad crotch bomber of Christmas Day, but I still thought the security portal was pretty tough) and walked around aimlessly looking for the AA premium class lounge. Terminal 3 is not well-designed to get one to boarding gates and lounges, but it is exceedingly good at luring unsuspecting people like me into the maze of stores. My native navigation skills for getting around places like Terminal 3, usually superior, let me down that morning, and I finally asked for directions. Even with help, I made a wrong turn before finally arriving at the lounge.

AA has done a nice job appointing and stocking the Terminal 3 Heathrow lounge. It's light, airy, spacious, and offers excellent selections of food and beverages. My time there was limited to 40 minutes, though, as it was approaching 11:00 AM, and I knew I had a long walk to my gate.

Sure enough it took almost 20 minutes to reach the boarding area. Not more than 10 minutes later boarding was announced. I was standing by the door, now open, and waiting for an agent to check my documents for a third time, but one never arrived. People started streaming down the jetway ahead of me, so I joined them.

On board I had been assigned the aisle right-side bulkhead seat, 2H. I thought it odd that the window seat beside me, 2J, remained empty during boarding, and later realized 2J is the designated pilot crew rest seat. I was up and down the entire flight letting pilots in and out as a result, but I still prefer 2H on the AA 767 international seat configuration.

A surly, rude deadheading AA flight attendant was seated one row back in the center section (3G), and she had apparently brought every suitcase she owned with her. She'd been allowed to board ahead of us paying customers and proceeded to fill every overhead bin, including mine, in the first two rows. I had to go back to the third row to stow my carryon bag and briefcase. It was irritating to see at least two nonrev passengers (the pilots and the F.A.) reducing the 767 business class section from 30 to 28 seats and also taking the overhead space available for customers paying up to $6,000 for the privilege of flying in business.

Every seat was pretty soon filled, and not a square inch of overhead space remained. The miniscule 767 coat closets in business class were stuffed completely full. The FAs in business provided cheerful service despite the crowding. As I accepted a glass of boarding Champagne, I mentioned to the FA that I sure would be glad when AA put a 777 back on this route. She sighed and concurred, saying every flight attendant hates working the international 767s in both classes because the spaces are so small.

Our noontime departure came and went, and I began to fret over the delay. It had begun snowing, just a few flakes at first, but now it was snowing hard. I didn't want to get stranded in London. (Little did I know that Heathrow and Gatwick would shut down later the same day due to heavy snow and would not reopen for several days.)

Turns out we had to be deiced, a first for me in London, and the plane pushed back at 12:21 PM. We endured a lengthy wait in line to take off, but ultimately we arrived at Raleigh early, so my worries were in vain.

I have been a harsh critic of onboard service in US/Europe business class on AA and on Delta the past few years, so I am pleased to report that the 6-course meal served me on this flight was outstanding. Every dish was tasty and fresh, barring one dried-out piece of fish. The FAs just kept the service coming the entire flight.

The AA business seats were somehow more comfortable than I recalled, too. When they were first introduced, I didn't like them.

I also enjoyed the movies and entertainment on the flight. Altogether, my LHR/RDU flight was a very pleasant experience. (When have I said that recently?) Of course the crotch bomber rules were not in effect then, so I have no idea what that's done to diminish premium class service on US-bound flights now.

Coming in from overseas gave me the opportunity to check out the new international arrivals area at RDU. One of the long escalators was not working along the dedicated overhead concourse from the gate to the Immigration and Customs desks, and that made for a long, slow walk. Otherwise, it was as friendly and quick as it used to be. Again, I wonder what, if any, impact the crotch bomber rules are having now at the Raleigh/Durham Airport port of entry.

I am glad and surprised to have enjoyed this trip as much as I did. After all I didn't expect much--just another business trip. Going with a neutral attitude and low expectations can sometimes lead to a happy adventure like this one.

Happy New Year!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting to note the problems with the Heathrow Express. I'm now 1 out of 3 in the past 2 months. Going the opposite direction on the same day as Will A. (unless they had two train fires in Dec) and the other, an appearantly a common occurence of someone hit by a train (the Brit reaction is like "happens all the time).

Still waiting for the refund on the cancelled service and same story as Will on only a 90 minute trip into London.

Seems it pays to stay at an airport hotel or a driver if you have an early morning flight.

1/08/2010 12:45 PM  
Blogger NJ said...

Why bother with the cab or express when you can utilize the SkyShuttle (34 pounds RT to your door directly to your hotel door - small minivan leaves about every 20 minutes- no more than 3 hotel stops on any shuttle- clean driver was nice- and on both ways I was one of 3 passengers on the little bus - Fast efficient cost conscious

1/09/2010 8:56 AM  
Blogger Mary said...

Hello Will - just found your blog. As we have Raleigh, the UK, and a visit to NYC in common, just have to leave a comment!

First, I'm British (from Devon) and have lived in the US 47 years, the last 32 here in beautiful (freeze your butt off this week!) Raleigh. That's OK though because even in 'sunny South Devon' as in most of the UK, there's snow and freezing temps. right now and the country is at a standstill.

Enjoyed reading of your recent AA flights to London - we always take that flight too and are furious they dumped the 777 service - they could always fill it and we got a good ride!

Never had to get a hotel room in London until the past few years - now stop over one night at a Heathrow hotel on the return from the Westcountry. London, though a great city, is no longer British and my one day there last Spring (for shopping at M&S and Selfridges) was a nightmare. I really don't care if I never visit again - I prefer to remember it as it was when I was young and there were actually people in the streets with English accents!!! My brother and family lived in North London (Muswell Hill/Highgate) where we always stayed, but, like so many well-heeled Brits, upped sticks and moved to the South of France 5 years ago! They live in a historic village (fabulous 200 y.o. house which they renovated, formerly the corn merchant's home) pop. 1400 all of whom grow grapes and make (and drink) wine - it's beautiful, peaceful and the way to live. I would move there tomorrow if I could talk my Yankee husband into it! His thoughts revolve around how many times one can walk through the village (one bar, 2 bakeries) oohing and aahing over the cobblestones and crumbling walls! In all honestly, I COULD easily do it daily, even twice daily for exercise, lol!

Pret-a-Manger, quite good - found them in NYC the week of Christmas when we spent 5 days there with a granddaughter. No posh hotel - used points and had 5 nights (stay 4 get the 5th free!) at the Marriott Residence Suites near Times Sq. It's across from the exquisite Bryant Park with ice rink, carousel and European shopping village. Of course having 10" of snow fall the day after we arrived made the park and entire city beautiful! Smallish suite was OK but no double-bedded rooms. Granddaughter had to sleep on uncomfortable sofa-bed first night, good granddad spent the remaining 4 nights on it and had backache each day! 33rd floor with magnificent view of the Empire State Blg. Great manager, she welcomed us personally after we'd corresponded online (begging for a good view as it was g-daughter's first visit), and e-mailed me after we got back.

Well this is almost book-length so I'll say "cheerio". Stop by my blog when you have time and leave me a comment - just a mini one would be welcomed.

Meanwhile I'll pass you along to my hubby (he's at the State game right now!) when he gets home. Know he'll love reading about your travel experiences - he's done the world for business/pleasure and is still going! We believe every child should travel as part of their education however we are saddened that it has become so difficult and often frightening.

Stay warm.

1/09/2010 1:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple of years back I was boarding a US Airways flight and all of the overhead space in first class was taken by deadheading crews. I mumbled "this isn't fair" and the next thing I new, they were moving their luggage. I give them credit for that. Apparently, AA isn't that accomodating.

1/11/2010 7:43 AM  

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