No, I am not crazy. Ok, maybe just a little crazy. For this past weekend’s trip to Istanbul, my work schedule forced me to play the “crazy” hand. Originally I planned to take the new Turkish Airlines Houston-Istanbul non-stop flight on Friday but due to some work conflicts I could not book it. Instead I booked the non-stop leaving on Saturday evening and returning on Monday evening, giving myself around 18 hours in Istanbul.
Why fly to Istanbul for such a short time? From the time the non-stop flight on Turkish Airlines was announced, I have wanted to try their in-flight service and visit Istanbul. Launching the service, Turkish had a number of promotions including a $499 round-trip fare in coach. United Airlines then announced that the booking class that the super cheap tickets booked into would no longer earn United miles. Not wanting to give up on the trip, I started digging into Turkish’s premium economy product, Comfort Class as they call it, and found fare that not only earned full United miles but was also cheaper than the cheapest coach fare that earned United miles. It was a double win.
On the Saturday of my flight I showed up at check-in a full two hours before the flight and line was ridiculously long. There are two check-in lines at IAH, business and coach, with no special check-in for Comfort Class. I inquired at the business class line if it could be used for Star Golds and was told yes. I also asked about a possible paid upgrade into business class and was told to visit the ticketing desk; Visiting the ticketing desk seems to be a common Turkish Airlines theme. I walked to the ticketing desk and asked again about buying up to business only to be told that it would be a difference in fare, also known as $3,000. Needless to say I passed on that offer.
At first, boarding was a fiasco. Then, the Turkish agents made a few announcements and people seemed to adhere to the requests that were made. I boarded and as the door closed it looked like the flight was almost completely full in all classes.
Shortly after take-off service commenced and a number of courses were served to Comfort Class passengers. The food on long haul flights is catered by DO&CO but I am still trying to figure out what the airline does in Houston since DO&CO does not have a facility at IAH. My guess is that they send their food standards to someone like Chelsea or a local catering company and cater the flights that way. In any case, the food was some of the better airline fare I have had. It was well prepared and nicely presented and tasted delicious.
The crew dynamic is very interesting. They served the different courses, handed out bottled water and then pretty much disappeared until the arrival meal began. It did not really matter on the way to Istanbul since most people slept, but on the return flight the same thing happened, leaving a lot of people hitting their call buttons to get more to drink. I did see one or two flight attendants walking around the cabin during the flight but they were not offering drinks to passengers who were awake.
The Comfort Class seats allowed me to get around six hours of sleep. They are basically old school business class seats with a leg and foot rest. What they really need is just a tad bit more recline. That little lack of recline is my only (tiny) complaint. Other than that, the storage space is slightly limited but the overhead bins are never full, so you have plenty of space to put stuff.
On arrival into Istanbul I walked quickly to immigration, I filed for an eVisa online and didn’t have to stand in that line, got stamped into the country and made my way into town. I explored the Old Town for about four hours before finding a place to grab dinner. Since the flight arrives into Istanbul around 3:55pm, you only have a short window on the same day to see any of the major attractions (most close at 5:30pm). I was still able to walk around some of the alleyways and crowded streets and get a feel for the city.
There is a ton of life in Istanbul. From tourists exploring the Hagia Sofia to locals having a çay while reading the newspaper, there is just a lot going on. With my limited time I made it to the major sights, though I did not get to visit the Basilica Cistern, which was high on my list. The next morning I woke up early and walked to the area near the Galata bridge to enjoy a Turkish coffee and watch the ferries come and go. The weather was absolutely fantastic and just watching people come and go off of the ferries was a great way to spend my morning. I then grabbed my backpack and made my way back to the airport where the check-in experience was about the same as what I encountered in Houston.
I forgot to ask about business class paid upgrades until I got to the gate and when I did inquire the response was that it had to be done at the ticketing desk (sound familiar?) and that it was too late. In complete contrast to my outbound flight, the return flight was nearly empty in Comfort Class but the service was just as mediocre as the flight to Istanbul. To top it all off there was a number of times that the cabin filled with the smell of cigarette smoke. It would linger for a little while, then go away; Then, a couple of hours later, it would come back. Some have suggested that it was more than likely crew members smoking in the rest area, which, if true, is very disappointing.
Before I forget, the entertainment system on Turkish Airlines is very nice. Lots of movie and television choices from new releases to “classics”. They had the full Harry Potter series, the entire Lord of the Rings series, Police Academy 1, 2, and 3, and a whole host of other options.
I am very glad that I took the flight, especially at the price point that was available for Comfort Class. It definitely makes me want to return to Istanbul and even explore the rest of Turkey. As soon as I get a few moments to edit photos this weekend, I will upload the rest of my pictures from around Istanbul.
Before I took the trip to Berlin a few weeks ago, one of my readers suggested I try to get a flight on a Junkers Ju-52. To be honest, I did not even know such flights existed. I started poking around the website that I had been sent and found a very large schedule for this year (German).
The Ju-52 has a storied history, being one of the early commercial aircraft for the new airline Luft Hansa, now known as Lufthansa. Being able to enjoy a ride on such an amazingly well restored piece of history is on my bucket list, if you can call my list of travel wishes a “bucket list”.
My mission to fly on the Ju-52 started in earnest immediately after being informed of the service and realizing that it would not be possible during the Berlin trip. I have now started looking at multiple dates and options for hitching a ride on the trimotor. The best prices to get to Europe are in May, but the Ju-52 schedule that month is not very good. I have started exploring options in June and July but due to the summer demand, the transatlantic prices make it difficult to justify the trip.
I will continue to watch the airline prices and if for some reason the prices drop, tickets will be purchased in a flash. The Ju-52 schedule is unique in that it doesn’t just offer sightseeing flights but also point to point flights as they move the aircraft around Germany. I would love to get in a couple of destinations. While pricey, it would be completely worth it to fly on such a beautiful piece of history.
photo by: bagalute
I stumbled on Joe Tea one evening in New York City while shopping for dinner. I am an iced tea fan and Joe has a lemon flavor so I bought a bottle and took it back to the hotel to enjoy with my meal. The lemon flavor was subtle but noticeable and it lacked that lemonade sweetness that a lot of other bottled teas have when they claim lemon flavoring.
My usual bottled iced tea of choice is Sweet Leaf but after trying Joe, I am a convert. Now if they’d only ship to Texas so I could get it while at home!
Over Spring Break we flew to Europe. By the time of our trip, the routing had changed to Houston-Frankfurt-Berlin in Lufthansa first class on the A380, returning Berlin-Frankfurt-Dallas, also in Lufthansa first class. The outbound was unbelievable. I have not flown a lot of international first but Lufthansa’s A380 first class is now my favorite “hard” product flying. The crew was stellar, providing prompt service and making sure that everyone on-board did not have any needs that were not met. The return longhaul flight was close to being a polar opposite.
Between Frankfurt and Dallas Lufthansa operates the Airbus A330-300. These particular planes, the ones based in Frankfurt, are just now undergoing conversion for the new first class seats. I knew this when I booked the tickets but ignored it because we needed to get home. Seats aside, the service from the crew was a 180 degree difference from what we experienced on the way to Germany. One flight attendant was attentive and helpful but the one who spent the most time in the cabin was as nonchalant and lackadaisical as they come. After lunch I had asked that the seat be made into a bed so that I could take a nap. The flight attendant put the seat into “lounge” mode rather than “flat” mode and kind of just tossed the mattress pad onto it. She didn’t take the time to make the bed or even get out the pillow and blanket. I searched through the overhead bin and found both. To top it all off, the food choices were not very good and the food itself was actually of poor quality (surprising since the flight was catered in Frankfurt).
One last thing. In Dallas, our flight was met by a Lufthansa representative holding a sign with a few passenger names. We saw our name and stopped to speak with her, thinking maybe we’d get taken to a quicker immigration line. She asked if we had checked luggage and said we would wait for a couple more passengers. After more standing around, the representative turns to me and remarks, “I can’t escort you to an expedited immigration line, you might as well go”. Well that’s a let down. What is this person’s role? To simply see if you have checked bags and put them to the side so you don’t have to wait for the carousel?
To be clear, I understand how fortunate I was to be flying in first class. I was simply a little surprised in the contrast between my outbound flight and the return. The flight crews were on opposite ends of the service spectrum. Had I known the service was going to be so poor, I probably would have saved the miles for first and just flown in business class. Will this keep me from flying Lufthansa again? No. Their A380 product out of Houston is certainly one of the best first class experiences in the sky. I file the whole experience under the crew having a bad day and the catering just being off. In the world of travel this is one of those, “sometimes you just have to realize you’re hurtling through the air in a metal tube” moments. It happens. It makes for a less than desirable experience but there is always the next flight.
Around the U.S. the “tradition” of spring break has begun. Back in September I had made reservations for my wife and I to travel to Seoul, South Korea and onward to Singapore during this timeframe. We were going to do it in style, using my United miles to fly Asiana’s new business class to Seoul and Singapore’s first class from Singapore to Moscow then home. Due to circumstances with my work, I was required to be in Maryland (where I am writing this now) over part of our vacation. I cancelled the reward tickets and had settled on not doing much over spring break. As I started thinking about it, I really wanted to take a vacation, if even a little one. I’m sure my wife would appreciate a small break from Houston as well.
As I sat in the airport on Thursday morning I did a random search for reward seats from Houston to Europe and happened upon two seats on SWISS in business class. I grabbed them, flying us from Houston to Chicago to Zurich. Now, Zurich certainly is not a cheap city and has not really been on my radar to visit so I started exploring other European destinations, as well as a way to get home.
My mind immediately went to where would be easy to reach from Zurich. I looked at Croatia, which has been at the top of my “to visit” list for a while now but all of the connections would arrive later than 5pm which essentially wastes a half day of enjoyment. The story was the same for most of eastern Europe. Where could we go in western Europe that interested us and was somewhere new? Seth’s write-up on Hamburg peaked my interest. He explored the city in just 26 hours and I figure with a little more time my wife and I could really get to know it. I found a decent connection out of Zurich and had the reservations updated. We’re halfway to a full reward!
The hardest part in all of this was finding reward seats for the flights home. There was absolutely nothing available back to Houston. I could get us to Detroit or Newark but that’s as far as the flights would take us. A random search then brought back Frankfurt to Dallas-Fort Worth in Lufthansa first class. Now that’s option I like! Then, when I decided that that was what I would book, it disappeared. United has a problem of showing ghost availability on Lufthansa (and others); It looks like the seats are there but really do not exist. I figured the seats disappearing was a ghost availability issue but the next day, there they were again! To double check that they were really there I used the ANA tool. Sure enough, there were two first class seats available on the Frankfurt-DFW non-stop. I called United and added the return.
I am still missing a flight from DFW to Houston but my “worst case scenario” plan is to have a one-way rental car reservation made and just use that to get to IAH. If a flight from DFW opens or a non-stop from Europe to Houston opens, I’ll grab that as soon as I can and cancel the rental reservation.
It’s a little stressful planning these last minute trips but fun at the same time. The best part is being able to salvage some of the vacation time with my wife.
Yesterday I noticed a lot of tweets and blogs sending their traffic to an article on Slate titled The Recline and Fall of Western Civilization. The article asserts that we as a society are broken because we recline our seats causing those behind us to suffer. It then takes the utilitarian view that reclining seats should be completely done away with. The first thing that came to my mind was, “are we really that bothered by seats reclining that Slate needs an article about it?”. Then I started thinking about the subtle “me, me, me” that was going on here cleverly disguised as “it’s for the greater good”.
Obviously, everyone on the plane would be better off if no one reclined; the minor gain in comfort when you tilt your seat back 5 degrees is certainly offset by the discomfort when the person in front of you does the same.
This quote in particular stood out. Unless you are a very tall person the amount of discomfort one receives from that same 5 degree seat recline is minimal as well. Sure, you may not be able to use your laptop on the tray table anymore, but the idea that you will be “uncomfortable” is a stretch. I am on an airplane a good chunk of every week and there are a lot of other things that are much more annoying and inconvenient than the guy in front of me reclining his seat.
Sure, I think it is annoying when a person reclines their seat right after take-off, or even better, the guy who does it on the ground after the flight attendants walk away, but I see some value in seat recline. I have had a few instances of back pain where I needed some recline to help relieve that pain and that 5 degrees made a difference. If we’re going to ban reclining seats then should ban all items that make trash (people litter), people who sit with their legs open on the subway (takes up my space), and so on.
Maybe what the author really wants to see is a seat like what ANA has installed on their Dreamliners, essentially a seat where the seat back is a shell, the bottom cushion slides forward, and the back cushion slides down. Such a seat gives a recline, but does not infringe on the space of the person behind.
I will say this. No matter how tall you are, products that keep the person in front of you from reclining, such as the Knee Defender, are not the answer. In the end air transportation is similar to a bus. If people want the experience of how nice commercial travel was in the 1960s then we’ll need to bring back regulation, make air travel unaffordable for a section of the population, and close a few airports… No? But it means a “better” travel experience for those traveling.
My wife shared this with me and it was just too awesome not to post.
One of the travel issues that I have been struggling with is internet access while in foreign countries. As some of my travel destinations become more obscure, access to the internet becomes more difficult. Do I absolutely need internet when traveling abroad? It is definitely one of those items that would be nice to have if I encountered problems with flights or travel in general and if for some reason I need to do some work or access a file back home having the access would be welcome.
I have been looking at items like this Unlocked WIFI Mobile Hotspot and I thought it would actually fit the bill until I saw that it wasn’t actually 4G. I have heard from a few friends that it is possible to get a real 4G device unlocked from stores in England. Then it is as simple as getting a data SIM card from a local carrier in the country you are in and presto, you have internet access. Of course these devices are fickle and in some cases it is hard to find a data SIM but for most scenarios, the process should work as advertised.
With all of that said, is internet access really necessary? I am sure that if the circumstances were dire, I could find an internet cafe or pay for an international phone call. Internet is really just a “nice to have” item. During my recent trip to Budapest, the internet in the hotel was as slow as molasses and having an alternate connection would have been very welcome. At the same time, travel is opportunity to disconnect and focus on the trip. By not having that internet connection overseas, it is a motivator to get out and see things rather than try to keep up with what is going on on Facebook, Twitter, etc.
If you have actually found a 4G device that works well overseas, I would love to get your thoughts on it.
An hour outside of Bratislava, on a train that can only be described as “Soviet”, my friends and I feel the sensation of slowing. Looking out the window we see the beginning of a rail yard. Oh, we are making the first stop; Except not. Our train comes to a halt about 200 yards short of the Nové Zámky train station. People are looking around, maybe something is on the tracks. The looks on their faces show an expectation of us moving again. Nothing.
For a few passengers, Nové Zámky, or New Castle, is their destination. They grow impatient, grabbing their bags, opening the train doors, and stepping off of the train into a foot of snow. As we watch those passengers drag their bags through the snow we wonder what is actually in store for us. Eventually a conductor makes his way to our car. We attempt to signal him for a quick explanation of what is happening with the train. He says he will explain in a minute and passes us, then proceeds to give a lengthy explanation to the Slovak speaking contingent in our car. A nice woman who knows we do not understand what is being said takes the time to inform us that the train is broken and that the delay will be at least an hour.
Knowing we have at some time to kill, Seth decides to make the most of the delay and hops off the train into the snow. We don’t see him for a while but when he returns he informs us that the pantograph, the device that draws current for an electric train from an overhead catenary, is broken. The pantograph had fallen and there was no immediate way to reconnect it.
We did not really want to sit around anymore so we grabbed our cameras and left the train. We walked to the front of the train, where a number of workers were surveying the issue. We started taking pictures and pretty soon a maintenance engine was pulling up to our train. A Slovak rail worker walked toward us, yelled something we didn’t understand, but got the gist of, “get back on the train”. Twenty minutes later and we were moving toward Budapest again.
Sure, this was one of those experiences that would frustrate most people. And yes, we were trying to meet up with friends in Budapest. But following Seth’s lead, we made the best of an inconvenience that we had no control over. Much like the experience of hitchhiking in Germany, it is a travel moment I never intended but enjoyed nonetheless. Being delayed on a Slovak train and walking around it while stopped is what makes travel interesting. It is what trips are about. Make the most of the bumps in the road and cherish these types of experiences. I assure you that you will look back on them and appreciate that they occurred as much, if not more, than the actual destination you were trying to reach.