Monday, March 8, 2010

London Trip Report

As detailed in my last post, I flew to London (LHR) on United Airlines on Friday after work.

 

Once I landed at LHR on Saturday morning (at 6am) I made my way directly to the arrivals lounge that I officially was not supposed to have access to. I talked my way in anyway and enjoyed a hot shower and breakfast and some time on my laptop before it was time to meet the rest of my NoVA Travelers for our transfer to the hotel.

 

The meeting time came and went and no members could be found so I used flight tracking data online to review the logs of their flight. I found that both members I was expected were on planes running at least 30 minutes late so I headed to the hotel by myself to wait for them.

 

Just my luck the tube routes were disrupted to track maintenance and the bus routes were disrupted due to a political march against violence. That left the train as the only viable option to get downtown. First lesson of travel- be prepared to stretch your budget. Tube tickets = something like $10 round trip. Train tickets= $45 round trip.

 

As soon as Jacob and Janice landed they emailed me and we all met up successfully at the hotel and checked in. We had one room on the club floor and another on a standard floor, but the desk clerk was kind enough to provide club/lounge access for both rooms. That would mean free breakfast the next morning.

 

Once we were settled, Jacob wandered off to do some things he had set on his agenda while Janice and I took a cab over to Westminster Abbey to tour the inside of the worship space. I had been in the courtyard of the Westminster last time I came to London but it was after hours and the locked doors barred my entry from my planned tourist trail stop. My second visit would end in just the same sort of disappointment- the Abbey was closed. I threw myself a quick pity party and we headed for our next stop - the Tower of London.

 

The tower (really a palace surrounded by walls with towers) was the home of the royals on and off since the year 1078 up until they were relocated to Buckingham Palace. It's a fascinating piece of history to take in while you walk across the spot where kings and queens have walked during ages before ours or while you sit quietly in the courtyard where state-labeled traitors (including Queen Ann and Queen Catherine) were beheaded.

 

P1000341 Tower of London

 

Like the rest of the Americans we were most drawn to the crown jewels and the instruments of torture exhibit. Oh and the castle toilets were pretty darn cool too. We enjoyed the complimentary guided tour (the Queen's body guard leading the tour looked so much like my father-in-law!) where we learned all about the royals and quite a bit about what it is to be a Queen's guard.

 

Our tour of the Tower of London took us well into the afternoon and then we took a taxi back to the hotel. I really like the taxis in London - they're roomy and sort of remind me of getting into a limo.

We had a relaxing evening at the hotel filled with napping and noshing on canapes in the club lounge (which was useful because I hadn't eaten since being in the arrivals lounge early in the morning).

 

Eventually 10pm rolled around and it was time for our big dinner at Murano. This time I traded event partners in that Jacob and I were pairing up for the dinner while Janice had other plans.

 

P1000359Outfit of the Dinner

 

A quick tax ride over to the restaurant and there we were! Murano is a bit small and simple in its décor. We made our way through ten courses of fine cuisine (not on the level in taste, presentation or service as The French Laundry but more like a high quality restaurant in DC that makes you happy when they discount their prices during restaurant week).

 P1000367 Main Course: Beef

 

 

 

P1000370 Pistachio Souffle

 

 

P1000372 Jenni after dinner

 

 

 

After a long day of flying, sightseeing and great food I was ready to sleep -which is exactly what led to me scrapping my plans to make a second attempt to visit Westminster in the morning when the alarm went off and I couldn't bear to get out of bed. Instead I chose sleep over God, dragging myself out of bed finally an hour later for breakfast in the club.

 

With just a few hours left to spare before we needed to return to the airport for the flight home I filled my time by browsing the stores on Oxford Street. I hit all the shops recommended by the UK fatshionistas I follow in the blogosphere: Evans, Dorothy Perkins and New Look. Then I entered the zoo that was Primark and found a few perfect frilly feminine skirts to remember London by.

 

It was a great trip and I'd be happy to fly to London for dinner again when the chance comes along.

United Airlines Business Class Review

I have a compulsive need to describe my adulterous experience in cheating on Delta with United.

I was led to play the field away from Delta because of the strength of Delta's (and it's skyteam partners) business class product.

"Wait…What?", you may ask.

You see, on the few chances I've had to fly in business class on Delta or it's partners I have loved loved LOVED the luxury of the seats, the treatment by the crew, the business class lounge access, etc. Just fabulous. Delta, seeing the value in their business class product is very stingy with their upgrades. They do offer upgrade certificates to top tier elites such as myself, but you can only use them to upgrade from a full fare coach ticket. That's sort of like putting the luxury Italian sports cars on sale for only $90k; doesn't help much if you still can't afford it. United however is much more generous with their upgrade certificates- they are good on several discounted coach fares. Also, United has a flaw in their pricing model (a software bug) that allows one who knows what they are doing to knock off a couple hundred dollars from any standard fare when purchasing online. Based on these two factors (and my ability to secure two complimentary upgrade certificates from kind fellow frequent fliers) I decided to try on United for size because if their business class is as fabulous as Delta's AND easier to get into, why not right?

Rather than a first impressions approach that would meander into a closer inspection analysis I'll just lead you through a listing of pros versus cons over Delta.

Check-in Process
On the outbound segment to London I checked in online and did not check any baggage
On the return segment I checked in at the airport using a kiosk and then did a bag drop at the counter. I was treated kindly and customer service of the front line staff was excellent.
Overall I'd put Delta and United on equal footing in this area.

Boarding
Delta board passengers in this fashion: special assistance, First/Business class, Delta Medallions, and then everyone else by zone numbers (I'm not sure the pattern to their standard zones). United boards passengers in this fashion: Global services (a special class of flier that is high revenue or VIP), First, Top Tier elite (1k)/Business, then lower level elites, then everyone else. Unless you're in the very top tier, the Delta system is preferable because it lets all medallions (even the lowest level silvers) board at the same time, yet before everyone else who isn't elite. I don't like the way United ranks elites for boarding any more than I like they way they rank their business class passengers for lounge access (see below for details on that).


Lounge Access
Pros:
  1. United actually has a club (multiple in fact) at IAD (Dulles) whereas Delta has none (You can only use the Air France lounge if flying on an international ticket in business or are Elite Plus and flying internationally that day).
  2. Lounge at IAD is bigger than the only other DC Metro area Delta lounge at DCA.
  3. KitKat bars in the snack choices in the afternoon (presumably all day). Yum!
  4. Fanta in the beverage choices.
  5. Star alliance lounge in London for departing international flights is very nice with a great food selection. The day I was there they featured Indian and Thai food.
Cons:
  1. Bar service is not included free of charge. Edit: as a business class passenger I was eventually offered a coupon for 2 drinks before leaving the lounge.
  2. Arrivals lounge access (with showers and the only lounge available if your final destination is London) in LHR is limited exclusively to PAID business class or first class members. Customers in business class from an operational upgrade or through the use of a systemwide upgrade certificate are denied access. This is true even if you normally qualify for access under Elite Plus (err I believe it's called Star Alliance Gold) to regular international lounges. Completely ridiculous. Delta/Skyteam gives you access to business lounges when you fly business period. There is no petty ranking of your business class ticket worth. Although I was able to talk my way into the arrivals lounge despite not officially meeting the entrance qualifications (because I'm smooth like that) it should be offered to all business class passengers.
  3. IAD Lounge, while near empty mid-day became packed to the point of overwhelming about an hour before the flight. There wasn't a single seat available. Delta lounges, while sometimes entertaining a lot of people (especially in Atlanta) have never left someone without a seat as far as I have witnessed.
Because of the limited lounge access for arrivals and the extra charges for the bar with United I'd put Delta above United on lounge access.

In Flight Experience
Pros:
  1. One of our two flight attendants on our IAD-LHR flight was more gracious then many Delta flight attendants I have flown with. He really had a heart for customer service. He gave me a key lime pie serving from his own meal tray b/c it was not available to general passengers (see cons below for why it wasn't available). I loved this man! (He should come work for Delta).
  2. We left on time. This is not often the case for Delta.
Cons:
  1. Although one of our attendants was A+, another was quite the rude flight attendant. In the first place, she looked at me as if I said I wanted to eat babies when I asked if they had Fanta. She literally twisted her lips into a scowl before answering with a definitive "No". Second, she took my hot mixed nuts away before I was done with them without even asking me and just proceeding to walk off with her back to me.
  2. The attendants made a big show of passing out menus as is typical in business class. Unfortunately after enticing us to make the difficult decision between exactly which of the three entrée choices we'd like and between the two desserts (oooh key lime pie) it came to pass that none of the items were available for passengers. Apparently the menus were from the last food cycle (so sayeth the flight attendant) and so we had to pick different items. Only the crew gets the "old cycle" items on their trays. This happened not only on the flight to London, but also on the way back the desserts offered on the menu were not current.
  3. I am on a 777 and these seats are like rocks. Rocks! I didn't think a business class seat (or even a coach seat) could be this hard. And if it's this bad in business my rear end is sympathetically clenching for those poor passengers back in coach.
  4. Sleep accessories: the blanket on United is comparable to Delta's domestic first class service but substandard to Delta's cushy down blankets on their Business Elite product. Also, the pillows on United are pretty much similar to the dinky pillows you normally get in coach on airlines except they put a nicer case on it whereas Delta has large almost full size soft pillows in their business elite cabin.
  5. Seat mechanics: Whereas every other carrier I've flown in business has seats that recline in a fluid mechanical range of motion, United's seat mechanics are quick and forceful. Sort of like pulling the handle in an old recliner and whoop there you go. You've got to put some physical effort into raising the leg rest or the backrest. Blah. I've read Delta still has a few planes with the same kind of seats that they inherited from Northwest during the merger, but I've luckily never encountered them. (Allegedly the new seats on United are better, but they are just beginning to roll them out and it is a slow process).
  6. In flight entertainment is much more limited than Delta. Where is my trivia against other passengers? Where is my HBO? Argh.
In Flight Experience overall: Delta, Delta, Delta. Even if I could find 10 more great things about United the HARD seats that are causing my rear to go excruciatingly numb right at the very moment I am typing this (we are actually in the sky somewhere over the Atlantic ocean right now) cancel everything else out. I am starting to see why Delta hoards their business class seats as though they are worth paying for- because they are (at least compared to United).

There you have it.

I think my long term strategy for flying will be to stick with Delta. As for the complaint I had regarding Delta hoarding their business class seats (instead of making them available for operation upgrades or through certificates redeemed on low coach fares) I will just have to hope they find it is a feature worth offering at some point. It's not worth jumping ship to United. In the meantime I may try to go for Delta ticketed flights on Air France metal because they often do operational upgrades for elites when overbooked.

Child Abuse

I just saw the film Precious. You should too.
Stories about child abuse reduce me to tears every time. This was one of the more horrific stories in terms of the level of abuse and degradation and it was hard to watch. It spoke to the hope and resiliency of the soul though and I like that. It also helps put my childhood in better perspective, encouraging me to be more resilient and just get over everything already. If someone can live through much worse abuse then I ever faced then I should be able to put my past in the past and thrive.
It's a work in progress.