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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?

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.


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.


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


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.