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Posts tagged berlin

I have been wrestling with this decision for a few days now and figured maybe someone reading this has a logical point to make in one direction or the other.

My wife and I are headed to Prague in March but our final destination is Berlin. Basically, the cheap fares were to places outside of Germany, so I looked for one that had a decent train schedule to where we were headed. Anyway, the train to Berlin takes about four hours. It’s relatively inexpensive and we would leave the Prague airport, after a 2pm arrival, and head straight for the central train station, eventually arriving in Berlin around 8pm.

Unbeknownst to me, Air Berlin started a regional service with Etihad between Prague and Berlin. The price is nearly the same as the train if I buy a roundtrip, which is fine, because we have to come back to Prague for the return home, and it’s a 1 hour flight. The only catch is, the connection means four hours of sitting in the Prague airport. Seth brought up a good point that he would rather keep moving than potentially fall asleep and I am taking that into consideration.

But what would you do? The arrival time into Berlin is about the same with both options. I guess one upside of going by train is being able to take public transit on arrival to the hotel instead of a cab from the airport.

Brandenburg Gate
Last week a number of airlines had a sale on business class tickets from the U.S. to Europe. Prices were about the same as coach and the destinations varied by airline alliance but most of the overlap seemed to be Dublin, Vienna, Prague, Amsterdam, London, and Paris. The key was, the tickets had to be purchased by Friday, October 16. We had been looking for options for the spring break holiday and considered some of these destinations as well as a reward I had on hold for Japan for the cherry blossom season. Unfortunately, the timing of the flights to Japan meant we would only have four days in the country and to me, that was not long enough to really enjoy the trip. In addition, the hotels in Japan during cherry blossom season are insanely priced and that made it even less attractive. Since the fare sale did not include any German cities, we decided to fly into Prague and take the train to Berlin for a week.

I ended up purchasing Portland-Washington Dulles-Vienna-Prague for the outbound and Prague-Frankfurt-Denver-Portland for the return. We’ll get to try Austrian Airlines on the longhaul Dulles-Vienna segment, which I am a little excited about, but a little worried about the short duration of the flight. I prefer longer flights so I can rest and try to adjust to the destination’s timezone. There were not many options available by the time I booked, so I went with the new carrier.


All of this came together rather quickly, I saw the fares on Thursday and purchased Friday afternoon. A number of the available destinations have less than stellar weather in March (Dublin) so we were looking at options with better weather (it will be cold in Berlin, but not too bad) and since we know Berlin, it will be pretty easy for us to get around. The other things I was having to take into consideration were airlines. The fare was available on Delta and they have a non-stop Portland-Amsterdam flight. Unfortunately, the outbound was not available but the return was. I strongly considered Delta though, as I would really like to fly them on a longhaul flight.

Overall, I think it will be a great trip. The flight from Dulles to Vienna might be short, but I can sleep on the train. It will be our first long vacation since moving to Portland and we are really looking forward to it. Making quick decisions is tough, but when a good fare comes up, you have to be quick.

Any new places in Berlin we should know about?

Wow, well it has been a while since I wrote part one of this trip report. I apologize for the long wait, my work schedule has been very hectic the last five months and the updates to this site have suffered as a result.

After a great time in Prague, a beautiful train ride, and a relaxing stay in Berlin, it was time to head back to the real world of work, bills, and a lot less Czech and German in our day to day conversations. But first, we had to get to Stuttgart.

Berlin-Tegel to Stuttgart

When I originally booked the trip, the only upgradeable space from Europe back to the U.S. was out of Stuttgart. This worked out nicely since I had never flown out of Stuttgart and had only been through the city once. Since we had taken the train from Prague to Berlin, I needed a way to get from Berlin to Stuttgart. The intercity express trains were well over EUR 200 per person but Lufthansa had a fare that actually beat their low cost competitor, Air Berlin, out of Tegel. I was hopeful that by the time of our trip, Berlin Brandenburg, the new airport in Berlin, would actually be open. Due to a number of technical problems, that opening has been delayed until next year.

Flying out of Tegel airport has its ups and downs. The major pluses are its distance from the center of Berlin and the cheap, efficient public buses that service it from many points around the city. The negatives are that it is an older airport starting to show its age. Most of the original terminal check-in counters are very crowded and this has only been compounded because of the Brandenburg Airport delay.

Nevertheless, I love flying out of Tegel because it is a step back in time. Check-in and security is done just outside of the gate area. You check-in, walk around the counter, and go through the security checkpoint. The gate area is usually shared between two or three gates and there is a small sandwich, coffee, etc. vendor inside.

Our aircraft from Berlin to Stuttgart

Our aircraft from Berlin to Stuttgart

On the morning of our flight there was some weather around Berlin and it caused a bit of a delay and confusion when checking-in. The lines for check-in were not marked and there were no Lufthansa staff directing passengers on where they should check-in. We stood around for about an hour before they finally opened the check-in desks. My original plan was to check-in, drop our bags at the Lufthansa lounge, and head upstairs to the tarmac observation deck. Due to the delays, I scratched that plan and and just focused on not missing the flight.

Eventually we boarded the Airbus 319 and were off to Stuttgart. I am not sure what it is, but I have found that on just about every flight I take in Europe, I have no problems getting an exit row seat. It seems that Europeans have a certain aversion to sitting in these rows and quite frankly, I have no problem with that. More legroom for me.

So I’ll cut to the chase, this was a rather uneventful flight that lasted just over an hour. Individually wrapped cinnamon and raisin danishes were handed out along with a drink of your choice. The flight attendants even came through offering seconds of the danishes if anyone was interested (are you listening U.S. based carriers?).

Breakfast form Berlin to Stuttgart

Lufthansa Breakfast – Berlin to Stuttgart

Stuttgart

We arrived in Stuttgart around 1pm and took the regional train into town, which takes about 45 minutes. We were staying at Le Meridien, which after figuring out how to get out of the train station, was only a ten minute walk away. It is a functional hotel, that’s all I can really say about it. The nicest thing in the room was the bathroom. One note, do not expect an upgrade at Le Meridien Stuttgart. As a Starwood Platinum I was given what had to be one the least impressive rooms on the property and there were a large number of rooms available, per the Starwood website.

Church in Stuttgart

After dropping off our bags we decided to walk around Stuttgart. The first thing you will notice is that there is not a whole lot to do in Stuttgart. There are a few churches and historical sights around the center but other than that, there is a large outdoor shopping area and not much else. We wandered around the back streets, found a nice restaurant and had dinner before calling it a night.

Stuttgart to Newark Liberty International

The day we left started way too early. The Stuttgart-Newark flight leaves at 9:30am and not knowing what security would be like, we left the hotel at 6:30am. The train pulled into Stuttgart airport at 7:15am and we searched for the United check-in counters. The signage is not clear, so if you are flying United out of Stuttgart just head to the far side of the terminal away from the train station.

Only two check-in agents were working so the process took a while, even though we were in BusinessFirst. After twenty minutes in line, we were checked-in and headed to the security checkpoint, which was much faster than check-in. Like Berlin-Tegel, Stuttgart has an observation deck, this one complete with seven or eight aircraft sitting there. Due to the crappy weather, we had to skip visiting the deck (I may make a trip back to Stuttgart airport just to check it out) but we grabbed a cup of coffee and headed for the gate.

Immigration control is done just before the gate area and after you are stamped out of the country you undergo another security screening, mostly consisting of questions about whether or not you checked your own luggage.

Only a few minutes of sitting in the gate area and the United contract staff called for boarding. Onboard we were offered a beverage before our departure and I went with the sparkling wine. Not United’s best, that’s for sure. Not too long after and we were up in the air and on our way to Newark.

United Boeing 757-200 BusinessFirst

Our home for the 9 hour flight from Stuttgart to Newark

The crew was expeditious in their lunch service. The starter was a cold piece of cured meat, pickle, and mandarin orange. Definitely too much sweetness, which would be a theme of the meal. My main course choice was the steak served with potatoes and vegetables and a sweet sauce. The steak was tender and the potatoes were well flavored but it was overpowered by the sweet sauce. The cheese course was next and was a bit better than our flight from Chicago to Brussels. The flight attendants portioned our cheese selections from the large portions on their cart and gave us our choice in crackers and other sides. My understanding as to why the cheese is pre-proportioned on the United aircraft that have Global First is a function of galley size. They simply do not have the space for the cheese course. Last up was the sundae. I went with my normal toppings of chocolate and a cherry.

After lunch and dessert it was time for a five hour nap and a movie before the pre-arrival service. The crew left out baskets of snacks and gave each BusinessFirst a bottle of water. They also made occasional passes through the cabin making sure that everyone was taken care of.

Main Course from Stuttgart to Newark

Steak, potatoes, vegetables, and a sweet sauce.

The pre-arrival service was described as a chicken “bouquet”. It was essentially chicken, cheese, and dough. The best part of it was the fact that it was served with a nice selection of fruit (watermelon, strawberries, etc.) and a vegetable salad with a dressing that had great flavor.

Not long after the pre-arrival service was served we started our descent into the New York area and 45 minutes later we landed at Newark-Liberty International Airport. Service wise, this flight was great. The crew did not spend large amounts at the front of the cabin chit-chatting, instead they did their service and took short breaks but still made sure to check on passengers. The food was a bit of a disappointment. I am not sure if it is the catering service used in Stuttgart but the food was entirely too sweet. The food itself is a little of a let down. United should really look at refining the BusinessFirst food options.

Pre-Arrival Snack - Stuttgart to Newark

Pre-Arrival Snack – “Chicken Bouquet”, fruit, and vegetable salad on United BusinessFirst.

Newark to Austin

There is not a lot to say about this segment, a standard coach flight. It was clear a few days before this flight that we were not going to be upgraded but we at least had exit row seats. Customs and immigration was very fast and we made it through Newark security rather quickly. The Boeing 737-500s that United uses on this route are a disappointment; No in-flight entertainment, rather uncomfortable seats, and very small overhead bins make it an unpleasant experience. United is retiring these jets though, slowly but surely.

Conclusion

This was a much needed vacation and I enjoyed most of United’s hard product (the seat, the new amenity kits, etc.) but pieces of it could use some work. The seats on the 3-class 767-300s do not have a lot of storage space and the cubby where your feet go is too small. Specific items of the soft product need work. The food offerings across the different aircraft types needs to be more standardized and in general, the food items need to be improved. With the other legacy U.S. carriers making sweeping changes to their international and domestic products, United is quickly falling to the rear of the pack.

I appreciate the United route network, the availability of reward seats, and plenty of lie-flat seats to longhaul destinations so I will continue to fly them when I can. I do want to see them work to continue making their inflight product much more attractive to business and leisure travelers.

There is something about Berlin and I have yet to put my finger on it. It is hip, peaceful, busy, and reserved all at the same time. From walking through Tiergarten to exploring the neighborhoods in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, the city has something interesting from block to block. All I am sure of is that when I leave, I want to return. That says a lot about a city and its people.

How can you say “no” to random strangers enjoying great weather, great beer, and each other’s company?

Fronts Harden in Lufthansa Labor Dispute (Der Spiegel) →

 

As expected, thousands of stranded passengers were none too pleased by the first strike on Friday at Frankfurt Airport, Germany’s busiest. Lufthansa had to cancel nearly half of the 360 flights scheduled to take off on Friday morning, and the airport almost ground to a complete halt until 2 p.m. Lines of waiting passengers in Terminal 1 wound their way through several parts of the building.

There was even uproar in the luxurious and normally serene first-class terminal, as furious frequent fliers ranted at Lufthansa staff. To add to the disarray, flight crews waved placards with anti-Franz slogans directly opposite, at one of the entrances to the airport site.

Things are kind of getting back to normal but Tuesday’s A380 flight from Frankfurt to Houston was canceled due to the strike and the effects of the strike will probably roll into next week. All of this stemming from the flight attendant’s union wanting an increase in pay and the same group being disenfranchised by the prospects of cost cutting by Lufthansa.

The Gulf-state carriers (Emirates, Qatar Airways, Etihad, etc.) are a real source of “hard to beat” competition due to their seemingly bottomless coffers and their willingness to go into a new market and take it by storm. Lufthansa is attempting to cut costs to compete on lower fares. It’s just a question of how far are they going to take that.

I have never been much of a writer of airline trip reports. Most flights, I end up not keeping track of a lot of the details, food options, and interesting tidbits. However, on my most recent trip to Prague and Berlin, I decided to take a few pictures and keep a few notes from the experience. The trip was done in United’s recently revamped BusinessFirst cabin as well as their domestic first class cabin and Brussels Airline’s economy cabin.

Austin-Chicago

The first segment of the trip was Austin to Chicago on a United Express CRJ-700 (operated by GoJet Airlines). These aircraft feature a small first class section as well as Economy Plus. These aircraft do not have any entertainment so I spent the flight reading and watching a couple of shows on my phone. They also do not have ovens so the crews do not serve meals in first class. Instead, first class customers are given a snack box that contains things like Rondele Spreadable Cheese and Milano cookies.

We actually ended up arriving in Chicago about 30 minutes early, but things went downhill from there. I knew something was up when we taxied to the “penalty box” and sat for about ten minutes. The pilot announced that we were a little too early and were just waiting for a gate to open up. These kinds of things happen and I was not too worried since we still had a decent amount of time to make our connection. But we sat. And sat. And sat. Over an hour later we made it to a gate and were deplaned. While I stood on the jetway waiting for the gate check bags to arrive I overheard our pilot talking to the rest of the crew about the plane that was occupying our gate and the circumstances for our delay. Apparently, the previous aircraft’s pilot was claiming a maintenance issue as a form of protest against a new pilot contract with United. Whatever it was, it forced us to run to our next gate and come very close to missing our connection.

Chicago-Brussels

Our Chicago-Brussels segment was operated by a pre-merger United 767-300. We were seated in the business class cabin which features lie-flat seats in a forward/backward configuration. United has recently renamed business class “BusinessFirst” which is what business was called on Continental Airlines. I had picked the backwards facing 6A and 6B because the reviews I had read stated that they were fairly quiet, being just behind first class and the furthest seats from the mid-cabin galley. The first thing I noticed when I walked on-board was the attitude of the crew. Every single crew member had a smile on their face and were greeting each passenger as they boarded. That was a good sign of things to come.

United BusinessFirst on the 767-300

United BusinessFirst on the 767-300

After settling in, the flight attendant offered us champagne, water, or orange juice and handed us each an amenity kit and a dinner menu. The new United amenity kits are slightly smaller than what Continental provided but bigger (and better) than what pre-merger United offered. The skin care products are by philosophy and are a welcome change.

My expectations for plane food, even in business class, are relatively low. I know that making a gourmet meal at 35,000 is a near impossibility and do not keep any illusions that the meal will be amazing. What I do look for is something that is edible, fills me up, and has some element of flavor. The main courses for this flight was as follows:

Grilled Pork Chop – Green peppercorn sauce, shiitake mushroom bread pudding, white asparagus, and broccolini

Osso Bucco-style Breast of Chicken – Chanterelle mushroom ragout, garlic polenta cake, and broccolini

San Francisco-style Cioppino – Seared hake and grilled shrimp in tomato-seafood sauce with mixed vegetables

Spinach Cannelloni – Four cheese sauce and roasted tomatoes with Parmesan cheese

None of the options really jumped out at me so I decided on the grilled pork chop. The quality was about what I expected. The meat was a little overcooked but the sides were quite good, particularly the mushroom bread pudding. I had trouble taking pictures of the food due to the low light in the cabin, so I have not uploaded a lot for this part of the trip.

United Airlines BusinessFirst Pork Chop

United Airlines BusinessFirst Pork Chop

After finishing the main course, the flight attendants came around with the cheese carts. The selection was ok and I picked a few that looked good. Looking at my watch I realized that service was going on hour three and I really needed to get some sleep since we would be landing in five and a half hours. I passed on the ice cream sundae service, made my way to the restroom, and changed into my Lufthansa pajamas from our trip to Germany a couple of years ago. I converted the United seat to a bed, put in my earplugs and pulled on my eyeshades, and slept for close to five hours.

When I woke up the crew was preparing to serve breakfast so I changed back into my jeans and shirt and prepared all of my carry-on stuff for arrival. When the breakfast tray came it consisted of the normal transatlantic breakfast, yogurt, some fruit, and what was essentially a plate of cold cuts. I think this is really where United could improve its BusinessFirst service. First, the fruit was close to being inedible. The pineapple was turning brown and the rest of the fruit was melon. Throw some strawberries or grapes in there. Second, why serve cold cuts? I know it’s more substantial than the croissant that used to be served but it’s just as underwhelming. I just decided to eat the yogurt and pass on everything else.

Before we had left Chicago I had spoken with the purser about arrival service in Brussels. He let me know that he would contact the airport staff there and ask that they meet me when we deplaned. When we arrived, there was a United employee waiting at the aircraft door. He asked what it was we needed and when told about the shower quite bluntly said, “we only sometimes provide that to United Global Services members” but added that I could talk to the United employees at the ticketing desk. I knew we had to exit security anyway to make our connection so I told the employee thank you and walked to the ticketing desk.

I greeted the ladies working the ticketing desk and described what I was looking for, the arrival shower service that United offered to their business class customers. At first I received a couple of weird looks, then they told me that this was a service that they only offered to Global Services members and even then it was rare. Now, I had spoken with a couple of United employees before the trip and both had assured me that there was arrival service for BusinessFirst travelers. Since this trip, I’ve been told that Brussels screwed up and I should have been given a room at the Sheraton across the street from the airport.

Anyway, back to the trip. Since it was now clear that getting a shower would be a near impossibility, we looked for a deserted restroom, gave ourselves a “sink bath”, changed, then found the luggage lockers and locked up our bags, and headed into Brussels via the train.

Four Hours in Brussels

When I booked this trip, the most desirable connections to Prague were also the most expensive, leaving us with a six hour connection in Brussels. Not wanting to spending that time hanging out in the airport, we paid the 10 Euros each to take the train into town.

We visited the Grand Place and the Mannequin Pis (who, oddly, was dressed up for the Fourth of July), but most importantly, we paid a visit to Poechenellekelder, a great little beer hall with outdoor seating. We enjoyed a couple of Belgian beers before realizing how tired we were from only five hours of sleep and decided to head back to the airport.

Mannequin Pis - Dressed up for the 4th

Mannequin Pis - Dressed up for the 4th

Brussels-Prague

We knew that we would have to check our remaining carry-on due to European carriers being much more stringent regarding the size of luggage brought on-board. After the most efficient check-in and security experience I have ever had, we were walking to the Brussels Airlines lounge in the “domestic” Terminal A. There are a number of lounges, including an SAS lounge, controlled by a single access point. We were given the option of visiting any of the Star Alliance lounges and opted for the Brussels Airlines one just to see what it was like. On entry we were handed two WiFi cards that were good for one hour of access each. Besides the great tarmac views, the lounge was rather stagnant. All of the lounges share a bathroom located near the security desk. After reading other reports on the lounge, it definitely seems that the SAS lounge would have been a better choice.

About ten minutes before boarding, we walked to the gate and waited. Being in coach on this segment, I figured it would be the normal boarding scrum that we have experienced on carriers like Lufthansa and Austrian. Surprisingly, Brussels Airlines made a call for business class passengers and Star Golds. We made our way to the gate and were allowed to board before the rest of the plane. Nicely done Brussels Airlines!

The flight itself was uneventful. Brussels Airlines charges for just about anything, including water, unless you are in one of their two premium products (Economy.Flex and Business). We landed in Prague a few minutes early and received our bags at baggage claim and start our adventure in Prague.

Up Next…

In the next installment I’ll give you a quick tour of Prague, express my love of Berlin, and show you what the BusinessFirst product looks like on United’s Boeing 757-200s.