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.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hotel Comfort, Bus Revelation In London

Nice shelter if you can get it

Praise heavens for the London Millennium Mayfair Hotel!  Situated in the heart of Mayfair on Grosvenor Square close to the American Embassy, it's a great location for business or leisure travelers.  

I booked my family in there over Spring Break and got a good deal, too--at least for a Central London hotel property.  Our $282 rate included a gigantic room even by U.S. standards (room 438).  With the fold-out couch for our two kids open all day, there was ample room to move around.  

We also enjoyed a complimentary full breakfast buffet every morning, use of the executive lounge throughout the day (which included complimentary cocktails and wine in the evenings), a daily £15 discount for room service or in the lobby bar, and 20% off at the swanky in-house Avista Restaurant.  The nice front desk staff also let us check in early, a real plus after an all-night flight.

The hotel's location on Grosvenor Square means it's quiet and calm. Being in the center of Mayfair, much of Central London is within reasonable walking distance, too. 

The seventh floor executive lounge was spacious and dignified, and always staffed by professionals.  Lounge staff always made us feel welcome and anticipated our every need.

Also memorable were the bathroom features:  The shower's water pressure like the Colorado River after the spring snowmelt, so strong that you literally have to brace yourself not to fall over from it.  No wimpy toilet flush like the USA, either; at least two times the pressure and water volume of American toilets.  Straight-across shower curtain instead of the bowed-out ones.  Bath sheets big as blankets instead of ordinary towels to dry oneself.

Perhaps best of all was the service throughout the property.  We encountered a great number of staff in several departments, and they were universally kind, helpful, and upbeat.  Not a rotten egg or sourpuss in the bunch.

Such courteous service makes any hotel experience, especially on business. That's one reason this is my preferred property when in London on business.

London Transport city buses?  Really?

On business trips to London I always take a taxi to my clients' workplaces (or walk, if close).  Cabs are very expensive, of course, especially with the extra Central London "congestion" charges applicable in Mayfair.  

Since this was a pleasure trip, we eschewed cabs and used London Transport's Oyster Cards, good for all-day travel on the Underground or city buses. We pre-purchased cards good for zones 1 and 2, which includes most of Central London.  To my great surprise, we found the buses wonderfully easy to use.  In fact we never used the Underground at all this trip.  

London Buses on Piccadilly near Green Park
as seen from the upper deck of a similar bus

I have my wife to thank for the bus discovery.  Before we left home, she printed a one-page bus map of Central London which we found indispensable.  

It was all so easy.  I've been traveling to London since 1973, and yet I never tried to master the city buses until now.  How sad is that?  Next time I am there on business, I will use the buses instead of cabs wherever I can.  

The Central London bus map can be found at:

It doesn't include every route, just the major ones. But that's sufficient.  Here it is:

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

On the Twenty-First Century Limited London-Paris

Why fly to the Continent when there's Eurostar, the channel tunnel train?  Central London to central Paris in three hours in comfort and with minimal hassle:  It's a no-brainer. 

OK, it's not the elegant service it was 15-16 years ago.  My wife and I took Eurostar in the 90s when it was new and operated from Waterloo. We somehow snagged a discounted First Class fare. The service seemed luxurious then, as well as fast. Our trip recently from London to Paris was in "Standard" class and much more akin to a bus service, with nothing luxurious about it. 

Nothing wrong with that, though. In fact almost every seat was filled, a credit to its operating "above the rail" profitability and a model for Amtrak to emulate, if it ever can.  

(Capital costs for the Channel tunnel and the trainsets themselves have been written off or absorbed. Both the Eurostar London-Paris and London-Brussels and the Thalys TGV-like service Paris-Brussels-Cologne-Amsterdam are profitable on an operating basis.

In fact I've been told today's frequent and cheap Eurostar service has created a whole new class of commuters.  There are folks who now live in the Paris suburbs who use Eurostar to get to work in London.

Amazingly, we paid $63 one way for each of three tickets and $45 one way for our daughter's ticket (she is 9).  It's a great bargain and far better than flying despite the slight hassle of security and passport control at London's St. Pancras Station--still far faster than at any airport. 

We pre-purchased nonrefundable tickets online which I printed at home. The barcode opened the security barrier for us at the DIY gate at St. Pancras. All very well thought-out and efficient. Here's what the boarding area looks like at St. Pancras--comfortable and clean: 

When our train was announced on the departure board, the gate and escalator opened automatically, and we found our car easily, as the car numbers are printed on the platform opposite the doors.  Here are photos of the boarding process:

Once on board, there is plenty of overhead space and at the ends of cars for stowing luggage.  We chose four seats (in advance, online) in the center of the car facing each each other with a table in the middle:

The train operated dead on time. Pretty soon after exiting London, we were flying towards the tunnel.  I went to the cafe car and bought a half bottle of Champagne to enhance the experience (we were, after all, on vacation).  The cafe car is nothing fancy--really more like a standard Amtrak cafe car now--but it was clean, well-maintained, and the selections were decent and the Champagne cold (and even reasonably priced):

Out of the tunnel we accelerated to well over 150 MPH through the French countryside.  My wife and I sipped our Champagne and enjoyed the scenery on a rare sunny day in France.  

At times our Eurostar reached 300 km/h, or 188 mph, which is achieved on the "LGV Nord" between the channel and the northern outskirts of Paris. (LGV refers to the tracks: High Speed Line in French).  It was an incredibly smooth ride, too. 

I even bought two carnets of 10 Paris Metro tickets each in the cafe car when purchasing a pizza for our kids.  Saved a lot of time at Gare du Nord.  

Pretty soon we were slowing for the Paris burbs, and grabbing our bags for disembarking.  I was amazed at how fast the trip seemed--because it was fast.  

In decades past I had occasion to commute between London and Paris on job assignments, but it was an all-day ordeal then: a (not very fast) train to Dover; a (very slow) ferry boat to Calais across the choppy, cold, dreary English Channel; another (not very speedy) train to Paris.  It wasn't cheap, either.  

Eurostar was a great way to travel for fun with the kids, of course, but I couldn't help marveling at how it's been perfected into a fantastic business tool since I traveled on it in the 1990s.  It's the ideal mode now for professionals to use between London and Paris, and between London and EU headquarters in Brussels: inexpensive, frequent, reliable, no hassle.  It's a business model we need to import to the United States.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Economy Comfort and Other Little Travel Provider Fibs

The experience of travel exposes each of us, of course, to the vagaries of reality.  I don't know about you, but ofttimes the travel services advertised or expected are not what I get.  

To most modern flyers, for instance, it may seem petty of me to gripe about the diminution of aircraft (from full-sized jet to RJ) now in service on Delta between Raleigh and New York.  After all, it's just a smaller airplane, right? 

True, but that's not the full story.  Since at least the 1960s through the early 2000s, airlines serving RDU and the New York area airports supplied 727s, 737s, DC-9s,  MD80s, and even occasionally 757s for the route.  The flights then were full of business customers, just as today.  The short one-hour service was never fancy, but it was comfortable.  

Frequently, we were connecting to international flights and had paid a great deal of money for the privilege of flying in First or Business Class.  The "premium" experience started in the domestic First Class cabin at RDU when we boarded the plane, so that it was seamless.  Even in economy, the planes were roomy and the seats tolerable.  It gave us comfort to think our money was well-spent.

Not any more, though.  Tiny, tinny, and tired regional jets now ply the route to the Big Apple from Raleigh.  The crews are typically third-party contractors, and it often shows.  RJ crews are more likely not to show up or to be late to the gate.  So your flight's late and you miss a connection?  They still get paid.  

Though Delta has announced future 2-class refits to some of its regional jet fleet, their RJs out of RDU offer one class of service: cramped.  If you bought an international First Class or Business Class ticket, forget about it.  You are just one sardine wedged tightly into the can until you get to your international flight at JFK, no matter how much you paid.  You don't even rate a free cocktail en route to New York.  The seats are small and close together.  City bus service is more comfortable.  

RJs fly slower than full-size planes, too, so the trips take a bit longer than they ever have.  Flights using RJs have a tendency to be late and never really catch up on their schedules.  When service disruptions caused by weather or ATC occur, airlines typically begin cancelling RJ flights first because each RJ impacts a relatively smaller number of passengers than a full-sized jet.  

Altogether, RJ flights are not comfortable and have eliminated every bit of fun in flying.  Put in context, therefore, my complaint is valid.  I don't mind flying RJs to smaller markets like Omaha, but between Raleigh and New York, they are a sour note.  Give us back full-sized jets to New York, please!  

Full-sized aircraft are no guarantee of comfort, either.  At JFK for a recent Delta flight to London Heathrow with my family, I had used my Platinum privileges to reserve four seats in  Delta's "Economy Comfort" section of coach. I snagged the best seats in Economy Comfort, too, on the bulkhead starboard side right behind Business Elite.

However, the trouble with Delta's Economy Comfort is that often it's not.  Sure, the first few rows of coach seats are called Economy Comfort.  But Delta has so many airplanes on international routes that it hasn't converted all of them to true Economy Comfort, which they define as having four inches more "seat pitch" (distance between seats for better legroom) and four inches more recline.

Certainly the Economy Comfort seats on our 767 to Heathrow didn't live up to those standards, nor did the Airbus coming home (Amsterdam/Detroit, an old Northwest plane and route).  Those seats didn't feel as if they were any more distant between rows  than the infinite number of rows of economy behind us stretching to the rear of the aircraft.  

Having made two round trips in Economy Comfort on Delta's 777 aircraft between Atlanta and Johannesburg, I know the difference.  Those long-haul 777s make a 16-hour nonstop flight ATL/JNB, and the distance between Economy Comfort rows lives up to the advertising claim.  Being in Economy Comfort seats rather than regular coach seats makes those long flights less hellish.

The other Economy Comfort service elements on our flights to Heathrow and back from Amsterdam did not differ any from the rest of coach: the same mediocre food trays, the same insipid white wine from a milk carton (I called that wine "roach killer" and asked for a Heineken instead).  However, the movie selections were free for us, and I am not sure whether the ordinary coach passengers had to pay for theirs or not.

Same lack of truth in advertising with the Heathrow Express train from the airport to Paddington Station in London:  Overall, it's not really that fast.  Yet they charge as if it is truly an express service.  It's an expensive option.  Once you follow the endless signs to the underground passages and then walk through the long tunnels, it's usually a connection train that awaits you.  That train isn't always standing at the platform and often involves a lengthy delay waiting for a train to arrive.  Once there, the connection train takes Heathrow Express passengers to the central Heathrow station where all must get off and find the real Heathrow Express train on another platform reached through further tunnels.  

When finally there on the actual platform, another wait is required if a train isn't present (as often is the case).  Once on board, yet another delay occurs waiting for the train to depart while stragglers arrive.  Finally underway, the Heathrow "Express" eventually surfaces to daylight to join the busy track network into London and becomes, well, just another passenger train headed for Paddington.  As such, it experiences slowdowns and delays like every other train (it's not treated special just because of its name, "Express").

So why do people use it?  Well, I do because it's still cheaper than a taxi, and the London Underground connection from Heathrow into town is hard for me to find.  I haven't found a good alternate option to Heathrow Express.  But I resent paying a premium for the train that claims to be an "express" when in fact it can take an hour start to finish to get to Paddington.  I would prefer they choose a more modest name, such as "Heathrow Connection" even if it's still expensive.  

Point being, it's a mistake to automatically put one's faith in travel providers to live up to their claims of service. Especially not the airlines.  It's a dice throw every time you board a plane to see if you get what you booked.  In the case of "Economy Comfort," Delta uses the word "comfort" indiscriminately and hopes you don't notice that it's often actually not any more comfortable than the rest of coach.  At least I didn't have to pay extra for it; many folks did.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Spring Break:
Getting to London

Six months ago my wife and I looked for tropical places we could escape to from Raleigh with our two kids over their Spring Break in late March/early April.  When we found only scary-high airfares to favorite destinations like the USVI and Belize, we checked Europe instead.  Surprisingly, the fares were cheaper, so we planned a trip to London for 3 days, then Paris for 3 days, and ending up in Amsterdam for 3 days before flying home.

We didn't want to fly back from London because of their absurd departure taxes on air travel.  Those taxes don't apply, though, when flying into the UK.  Our open-jaw tickets on Delta were cheap enough that we could easily justify the rail fares to get us from London to Paris and from there to Amsterdam.

Used to be Delta had real planes flying RDU to the New York airports, but these days it's mostly CRJs and ERJs.  Ours was a Canadair, uncomfortable as always, and late to boot, but we made up a bit of time en route owing to the fat built into the schedule, landing at JFK on time at Gate 18.  

Still, we had a short connection and had to fast-walk to our departure Gate 8 to catch DL03 to Heathrow.  From gate 18 to gate 8 sounds close, but it's in fact very distant.  Even moving swiftly through the old Pan American World Airways terminal, I could see it was as shopworn as it had appeared to me in 1979 when I flew PanAm quite a bit to London.

The flight was boarding by the time we made it to gate 8, and we walked down the jetway with no wait.  My Delta Platinum status had allowed me access to Economy Comfort, the rows near the front of coach with 4 inches more legroom and recline--or supposedly so.  Our seats were 15FG and 16FG, the first two rows behind Business Elite.  They didn't seem to have more pitch to me, but we did have free movies on demand and the relative privacy and comfort of the front rows.

The seats were not comfortable, not even for the short 7-hour flight, and the meal service was typically an abomination of mediocrity.  Nonetheless, the crew was attentive and kind, and the movies plentiful.  As we taxied in at Heathrow after an on-time arrival, the Purser walked back from Business class to offer me a Fast Track pass through Immigration and a Yotel voucher for a short-stay room at Heathrow to shower and freshen up.  I took both, gratefully.  She thanked me for my five million miles on Delta.

After the typical rat's maze very long walk to reach the Immigration barrier, we joined the long queue labeled "Fast Track" while observing the much longer regular line.  In a few minutes we realized the Fast Track line moved at a snail's pace because it terminated at just two Immigration stations, while the regular (non Fast Track) line moved far quicker to reach what looked like ten or more immigration clerks.  By the time we realized Fast Track was a joke, we had too much time invested in the queue, and simply waited it out.  

False advertising:  Fast Track took 42 minutes of waiting, not at all speedy.  Turned out the real VIPs were brought by airline staff not to the Fast Track line but to the adjacent "invalids" queue and let in there for a very short wait to reach an immigration agent.

Oh well, we were on vacation, so we absorbed the delay without undue stress, just some complaining on my part.  Once done, we shot through the Customs line (we only had carry-on luggage, as always) and exited the secure area in search of the Yotel short-stay mini-hotel.

It was easy to find and close-by.  The Yotel room was tiny, like on a modest sailboat, but fine with a great shower.  Afterwards, with a clean set of clothes, I felt almost human again.  

Truth is, I adjust to very long flights and time changes, such as to Asia and South Africa, better than I do going eastbound to Europe.  Jetlag kills me going to Britain or the Continent.  That's always been so for me, and the only way I can reset my internal clock is to stay up all day the first day.  Nothing better than a shower and change of clothes to launch me into the job of not falling asleep until nightfall.

Having pre-purchased the "Family Fare" on the Heathrow Express train to Paddington, we found our way through another maze of hallways, tunnels, and connection trains to the central Heathrow station where the actual Express train departs.  It takes about as long to wend one's way down to the connection train, then wait for it, and then take the connection train from one's terminal to the central Heathrow station, as it does to ride the actual train from there to Paddington.  

It's always amused me that they claim the Heathrow Express is so speedy.  It takes twice as long start-to-finish from Terminal 4 or 5 to Paddington as they claim because they only count the Express train itself and not the time to reach it.  Even their own map (from their website) demonstrates to the alert reader that the 15 minute trip is longer if you're connecting to or from Terminals 4 or 5:

The ride in was fine, but Heathrow Express once again announced repeated apologies for delays en route due to other trains ahead.  I've never ridden the Heathrow Express when they didn't make such excuses.  For me, at least, they have had a zero on-time performance.

Paddington was, well, good old Paddington.  I used the station often when way back in early 1970s I studied at Oxford, so it has a special place in my heart.  We stopped at one of the "Delice" bakery products shops on the way out to buy some fresh croissants, and they were, as advertised, delicious!  Croissants almost as good as in France available in an English railroad station?  Now that's something you certainly couldn't find at Paddington--or anywhere in the UK--during the final year of the Nixon administration.