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.

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.


Blogger hulananni said...

Always enjoy reading your posts. Love: " abomination of mediocrity."

4/12/2013 5:35 PM  
Anonymous Merle Minda said...

Re the Comfort Seats: I guess I do find them to be helpful because at least they give you significantly more leg room than regular seats. For this alone, I think they are worth it. I use them on long flights -- over 4 hours or so -- and tho they are not Business Class by any stretch of the imagination, they are better than straight economy. And much cheaper! We are headed to France in a few weeks and will be in the comfort seats!

4/12/2013 6:41 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

I agree completely about Economy Comfort seats...where they are really installed. The problem with many Delta international aircraft is that they have assigned several rows up front as "Economy Comfort" but they haven't actually installed the new seats and separated them by an extra four inches. Neither of the two Delta flights we were on recently (a 767 JFK to London and an Airbus Amsterdam to Detroit) had the extra four inches. They were just calling the first few rows of coach "Economy Comfort" even though they were the same as all the other economy rows.

4/12/2013 9:25 PM  

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