I was only a bit surprised to find a wide range of choices available for award flights from New York to Northern Germany in mid-March. After all, it is the middle of winter and most spring break folks are headed to sun and surf or other more traditional destinations. We had our choice of the non-stop United flight to Hamburg or taking a connection in Frankfurt and flying in to Hannover. Given our initial destination of Hildesheim is much closer to Hannover, plus the better flight time (9pm departure rather than 5:30pm) I figured we’d take the extra travel time. Plus it meant I’d get to experience Singapore Air in their economy cabin, rounding out the full set (I did suites a couple months ago and business a year ago). So, thanks to some MileagePlus points I got us booked on JFK-FRA-HAJ with a reasonable layover in Frankfurt for breakfast and a shower in the Senator Lounge.
We got to JFK a bit early so that we could have dinner. We considered the options in the Swiss lounge in T4 and quickly decided to have a real dinner instead. There is a branch of The Palm in the terminal and, despite some previous bad experiences with other airport steakhouses, we gave it a go. Mostly because it was the only reasonable meal option there. And it was surprisingly good. It was helped by our waitress Victoria who was old-school NYC in a good way. But the food was also quite tasty. And by virtue of sitting there rather than in the lounge we got to see this guy and his sparkly backpack. All sorts of good happening there.
Once on board we were treated to the bonus of having the middle seat between us empty. We almost got lie-flat coach but I was slow to jump into the seat across the aisle. Yeah, loads were light. That was good because the space on board isn’t particularly generous down the back of the plane. There is a foot rest which mostly just got in my way, preventing me from extending my legs under the seat in front of me. And the seats are the articulating ones so the recline slides the bottom forward a bit. Reclining decreases legroom. Yuck.
On the plus side, economy class got amenity kits (socks & a toothbrush) and earplugs/eye mask were available on request from the flight attendants. Also, free drinks with the dinner service, though it was really only beer & wine. Liquor was available but not on the drink cart so the delay in having the FA go to the galley to get it made it a rather unappealing option. The meal was OK. Nothing special, really, either good or bad. I suppose that’s about all one can really hope for in coach these days.
On the plus side, Singapore has quite a selection of movies loaded up on their IFE systems. Most were relatively new releases but there were a few from the archives as well. It took three reboots for my IFE to actually work properly (others around me had similar troubles) but once it got working it was pretty good. The in-flight internet was not working, making me 0/2 on trying that product out with Singapore Air. I’m happy my plan was to sleep and not be working.
Oh, and just because I can, a laviator shot on board showing off my RouteHappy shirt.
Overall I’d say that the timing of the SQ flight was still better than the UA option I had. But seat comfort would have been better on United, especially vis a vis personal space since I can get EconomyPlus for free. The meal was maybe a smidgen better on Singapore Air but with the later departure that matters less. And United’s IFE selection is sufficient for my tastes, maybe even better if you like the classics more than current cinema. In premium cabins there are a many more reasons to favor Singapore Air over United. In economy I’m not so sure about that choice. Especially if you’ve got elite status.
The economy hotel tier in Europe will see a new player come March 2014: Moxy Hotels. The brand, backed by Marriott, expects to open the first of their new properties in Milan roughly a year from now, kicking off plans for 150 properties across Europe over a 10 year period, 50 of them in the next 5 years. The brand is focused on the millennial generation, with an emphasis on stylish design, connectivity and an affordable price. They want to grab the intersection of the backpacker and jet set markets.
Arne Sorenson, President and CEO of Marriott International, sees great potential for the new brand:
MOXY HOTELS is the essence of the next generation traveler, not only Gen X and Y but people with a younger sensibility, for whom contemporary style is paramount. Every aspect of the hotel was thoughtfully researched and crafted to reflect and deliver on the changing lifestyles and expectations of this fast-growing customer segment. We believe Marriott will lead the way in redefining the traditional economy hotel experience throughout Europe.
After Milan the brand plans to open in Frankfurt, Berlin and London. Other locations will be targeted in Germany, Austria, United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, Italy, The Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
The hotels will be medium sized – the goal is 150-300 rooms at each property – with a focus on welcoming common spaces as much as in well appointed rooms. In this way the Moxy brand hopes to offer the social aspects of hostels while going a step or three up the ladder on amenities and privacy when the guests want it. And with free wifi throughout the properties and USB ports at every outlet the company is clearly taking a fresh view on features, at least in some areas. And for guests who want something a bit more traditional there will still be large LCD TVs in the rooms.
For budget travelers who are also points-focused the Moxy chain offers the best of both worlds. Their participation in the Marriott Rewards program will allow guests to accrue and redeem points similar to other Marriott-backed properties. And with only 20% of the budget hotels in Europe currently brand-affiliated this new product opens up a lot of possibilities in the space.
The way they describe the properties I can see some appeal for my travel habits, despite being quite a bit older than the "millennial" target market. That said, looking at the photos on their website I’m clearly not in the same circles. Not quite hipster and not quite euro-trashy; I don’t exactly know what they are going for, but it does have me intrigued. And, while I don’t really love visiting Milan, I suppose I can plan a trip for next spring anyways, just to see how it is.
Some benefits of an airline elite program are used more often than others. Some are more valuable than others. And some are ripe for seemingly excessive overuse. It is one in this last category that I love the most and which I get the greatest value from: Free changes on award tickets.
I book award tickets all the time as a hedge against revenue tickets I might book in the future or to ensure access to flights which I otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford (both the LH 747-8i inaugural and the UA HNL-IAD inaugural were awards for me). I also book them for vacations with my wife, and those are some which see the most changes. That’s where I really start to see crazy value from this benefit.
I book speculative seats and then hope better options open up. I set up alerts to monitor the award inventory and when the alerts trigger, the change machine goes into action. I’ve only made three changes so far to our itinerary for this summer, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if another came along.
The planning started when I booked the outbound segments, New York City to Vienna to L’viv. It was close to the date we wanted and we knew we wanted to visit Ukraine so how bad could it be? Sadly, however, I didn’t have sufficient points to book the return so I was stuck with just a one-way award at that time.
A couple months later the first change came along. I finally had sufficient points to redeem for the return portion of the trip. Of course, the return segment I really wanted – Frankfurt to Orlando – no longer had award inventory. I could get TAP Air Portugal from Lisbon to Miami, however, and that got us within a few hours’ drive of where we wanted to be so I snagged it. At least we were in the right state.
Booking that part also involved a bit of a fight with the agents as they really didn’t want to allow my double open-jaw plus stopover award routing. Yeah, I stretch it to the limits, but it is within the published rules. Eventually I won the battle, but it took quite some time. Ironic, considering the third change.
Change two came about when the award seats into Orlando opened back up. Definitely what we actually wanted, plus it switched our return to route via Vienna where we’d have an overnight stop for about 18 hours, much better than the 10 hour overnight in Lisbon. As an added bonus we’ve got a friend in Vienna so we get dinner with a familiar face mid-vacation. And, once again, I had to fight the agents on the award rules and once again I prevailed.
And then, this afternoon, a bunch more alert emails rolled in. We’d been hoping to start the trip a couple days earlier but the inventory just wasn’t there. It showed up today in force. All of a sudden getting across the Pond in business class was reasonably trivial. We had our choice of dates in the desired week and we took full advantage, adding an extra four days to the trip.
And I’m not completely done yet. I’ve still got my eye on one or two more improvements which I’m betting will open up eventually. I would have liked to try Austrian and TAP, but traveling on the right dates and to the right cities outweighs that curiosity for me. Ditto for the new Brussels Air product which is available, but the connection in Brussels is just a smidgen too short. Such is life.
As for the irony mentioned above, it turns out that I really didn’t need the double open-jaw after all. So all that time spent with the agents explaining to them how the rules of their program work was essentially wasted. Oops.
There are lots of different benefits to the elite programs with the airlines, but this one saved me several hundred dollars and got me MUCH better awards than I would have otherwise been able to score. That’s definitely the best value in the program for me.
One of these days I might actually figure out how we come up with the names for our podcast episodes. In the mean time, I’m content to know that they are interesting enough to make people wonder what the heck is going on and also that they are chock full of lively banter and entertaining discussion ranging across a variety of topics.
This week’s episode – Sardines in a Can – is a bit different from the first three in that the focus is more on the news of the week, mostly because there was so much interesting news. Alliances growing, aircraft debuting and, if the WSJ and NYTimes are to be believed, great insight into how elite status is changing (they say for the worse) and just how hard it is for the airlines to eke out a profit (and they misrepresent the data; listen to hear how).
Oh, and a new way to mint points, so long as you happen to be in Frankfurt for a while.
Give it a listen and enjoy!
Like many frequent travelers I have a certain routine I go through prior to a flight. This flight would certainly push that routine to its limits. After all, it isn’t often that the airline CEO speaks to the passengers or that the pilot and senior cabin crew come in to the terminal to greet customers prior to departure.
The ceremony was hosted in the Business Lounge rather than at the regular departure gate area. That made it quite a bit more intimate as an event. It also made me quite happy for my Star Alliance Gold status which got me in to the lounge to see the event. And so, while nursing my usual pre-departure beverage, I joined the crowd listening to the speeches.
Lufthansa‘s CEO addressed the group, noting the historic nature of the flight and the commitment to passengers that the new aircraft represents. A representative from Boeing also spoke, touching on the history of the 747 line and the future that the new "Queen of the Skies" represents. "You are riding in to aviation history," he shared, not that any of us needed a reminder on that.
After the speeches wrapped up the agent in the lounge made the announcement, inviting us all to make history and board the aircraft for her inaugural flight in service as a passenger airliner. Boarding was a bit slow, owing mostly to the great vantage point the upper boarding lounge had of the plane.
We were each presented with a commemorative plaque for the flight and then, finally, we made our way on to the plane. At the entry door a flight attendant was handing out pins to all passengers and, not surprisingly, flash bulbs were popping all over the cabin as passengers documented the experience.
There were the usual pains of boarding 300+ passengers on to a plane. Finding overhead space for some passengers was a bit challenging but thanks to the Sky Interior configuration the bins turned out to be more than spacious enough for the hand luggage on board. There were also seat swaps and other such negotiations. Soon enough, however, the boarding door was closed and the announcement we were all waiting for came over the PA system.
Cabin attendants: Boarding complete.
Those four simple words, a phrase I’ve heard countless times in my travels, had special meaning this time. It was now time for the new "Queen of the Skies" to take flight.
Yeah, that was awesome. It is not common that such can be said for a flight in coach, but this one absolutely was.
Today was the inaugural flight of the Boeing 747-8i in passenger service. The flight, Frankfurt to Dulles with Lufthansa, was quite an event over and above simply being a smooth, quick and reasonably comfortable flight. When was the last time you saw a press conference on a plane, for example? What about two of them running concurrently (one in German and one in English) on the upper deck of the 747? Yup, a first for me, too.
The press conference saw some interesting information discussed, but that’s not really what defines the in-flight experience. I was ticketed in economy and spent at least part of the flight there. I also spent a few hours on the upper deck, hanging out with friends and enjoying that part of the flight (yes, I even managed to partake of the premium cabin catering a bit), but the bulk of my time was spent in seat 31D. And, for the first time ever, I actually enjoyed the Lufthansa economy product.
The new seats offer a surprisingly large amount of room at the knees, thanks to the slimline seat design and relocation of the magazine stowage. There is also no metal bar across the rear of the seats at the bottom where it normally would dig into your shins. Oh, and a pillow and blanket at every seat.
The cushioning of the seats was my biggest concern. Turns out that the concern was mostly unfounded. My previous slimline seat experiences were on short-haul aircraft and those are not particularly generous in the padding department. The new Lufthansa 747-8i coach seats were markedly better. They aren’t luxe, by any stretch, but I didn’t find sitting in them for several hours to be particularly uncomfortable at all. Yeah, they are still coach seats, but they really aren’t that bad.
The seat pitch isn’t any greater than the other Lufthansa economy products so I was somewhat concerned about using my laptop (10" netbook) and otherwise take advantage of the space at my seat. With the seats upright I had no troubles at all. I could actually cross my legs and rest my computer on my lap reasonably comfortably.
With the seat in front of me reclined it was rather more challenging. I could still use my netbook thanks to the short tray table and the extra space lower down in the seat area, but it was definitely not as comfortable an experience.
One interesting bit of note is that the seats are articulated so reclining also means losing a couple centimeters of legroom. It is less than an inch, but it happens.
Shortly after departure we had a drink service along with a bag of snack mix. It was preceded by a hot towel service.
After the snack service a hot lunch was served. I chose the chicken (veggie ravioli was the other option) and then held my breath as I peeled back the foil lid to reveal my meal. I was shocked.
In addition to looking good it actually tasted good. Not just "good for airplane food" but actually a pretty good sauce and the chicken was moist and tender. It really was pretty good. The salad and the dessert weren’t my thing, but I got over that pretty quickly when I realized that I actually enjoyed the main course portion of the meal.
Shortly before arrival a second meal was served. Again, it was preceded by a towel service. The choices this time were a veggie calzone or a beef taco. I chose the latter.
I’m not going to pretend that it was nearly as good as the first meal, but it actually tasted like what it was called and it had some flavor to it rather than generic bland. It washed down quite nicely with another beer.
I also discovered that at some point they had cake in economy for the birthday of the plane. I was apparently upstairs at that point and missed it.
As I mentioned above, I also spent a bit of time in Business Class. The meal service appeared to be a typical Lufthansa Business meal and I didn’t actually eat it so I cannot comment on it. I can comment on the schnapps and chocolates, however. I quite enjoyed that.
The seats are most definitely a new and different experience and I got to sit and lay down in them so I can comment a bit more on that as well.
They are fully flat and 1.97m long when in sleep mode. This is quite a welcome change to the product for most folks. That said, they are also a bit narrower and the pairs of seats (2-2-2 on the main level and 2-2 upstairs) point in towards each other. This means the foot well space is shared by the passengers. It also means that the seats feel a bit narrower throughout. One friend I was chatting with about the seats noted that the narrower layout was a negative for him and that he preferred the older version. I can see where he’s coming from but I like the new one much better, at least so far.
The seats are well-padded and the controls to manage the positioning are intuitive. The seats are quite comfortable throughout the range of the recline.
The overall flight experience was really quite reasonable. The cabin is quiet. I think that the main deck business class area was slightly quieter than the upper deck and both were quieter than the economy cabin. I’m guessing that first class is even quieter but I didn’t head up there during the flight. And it also didn’t seem as quiet as the A380 in coach (but my last experience there was a year ago). Still, quite an improvement over the older aircraft.
And then, a landing at Dulles (slightly bumpy; one oxygen mask compartment actually popped open) and we headed to the terminal. So ended the very first passenger flight of the 747-8i. Like I said at the very beginning, it was awesome.
Lufthansa is hosting two events today in Frankfurt for the launch of the 747-8i. The first, focused on the press, was this afternoon and saw a couple hundred guests roaming around Hangar 7 (a/k/a the A380 hangar) and inside the aircraft. There were also many senior executives on hand to talk about everything from pilot certification on the new type (super easy) to the A+ pier at FRA to in-flight connectivity.
Getting inside the aircraft was the most exciting part for me. We got to try out all three cabins (yes, I tested my seat for the flight tomorrow to make sure I’m going to survive) and roam the plane pretty much anywhere we wanted. It was awesome. And these are the photos.
I’ve got a bunch more, either on my FaceBook page or in the original gallery. More coming later after my next visit this evening.
British Airways and JAL, partners in the oneworld alliance, have received approval from the Japanese government to formally launch cooperative marketing and revenue sharing efforts for service between Japan and destinations in the EU. JAL currently operates four daily flights from Tokyo to Europe (Paris 2x, London and Frankfurt) and BA operates 12 weekly flights between London and Tokyo.
The two carriers expect to begin their joint operations in March 2013. They have suggested that the approval will "benefit customers by providing better links between the EU and Japan, more choice, enhanced frequent flyer benefits and the potential to launch new routes." Most other ATI agreements have resulted in less competition which generally is bad on the airfare front, but the other benefits are generally quite good for consumers. It seems unlikely that this one will be much different on either front.
Flights from New York City to western Europe are generally too short for anything remotely resembling a good night’s rest. In many cases even a chance of a decent nap is pretty low. The key to having a chance, however, is to be done eating before clearing the edge of Canada. That generally means at least 4.5 hours until landing, leaving a 4 hour window for sleep before the attendants have to put the cabin back together for arrival.
And so I was watching the in-flight map as we departed Newark for Frankfurt last night, trying to figure out how we were doing on the meal as we headed east. When the appetizers showed up we were over Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Not good for hoping to be done with the meal before clearing Canada. On the plus side, the food was quite good, a pleasant surprise in quality and quantity. I even managed to skip the Fernet Branca, going to sleep without that flavor in my mouth for the first time in a long time on a Lufthansa long-haul flight.
By the time the meal was done we were 3:45 out from landing. I slept almost all of that, even in the angled seats of Lufthansa business class. We were fortunate to arrive to a gate at the terminal rather than a remote stand and from there wended our way through the terminals and the SkyTrain to find some lounge time.
Our onward flight to Chennai departed from B42, directly adjacent to the new Terminal B Senator Lounge. The new lounge is quite a welcome improvement over the old B lounge, though it still suffers from crowding at the peak morning departure bank; the wait for a shower was about 30 minutes and our layover wasn’t long enough to make that work.
And then it was time to head out to the gate and board our flight to Chennai. Another 8.5 hours in the sky with Lufthansa as we begin this crazy adventure.
I’m a sucker for a good, old fashioned food market. Partly because I truly enjoy a picnic and partly because I hate massive groceries, but a good food market just about anywhere in the world will draw me in. Given the relative dearth of enjoyable things to do in Frankfurt (at least that I found interesting), my most recent trip was a bit heavy on the food market visits.
The main market in the old city is the Kleinemarkthalle. Originally built in the 1870s, the market was destroyed in World War 2 and rebuilt in the current location in 1954. It houses dozens of stalls with merchandise covering the full gamut of fresh and packaged goods. Meats, cheeses, seafood, produce, flowers and more.
Of course, to visit the Kleinmarkthalle we first had to find the Kleinmarkthalle. Easier said than done. Juggling Google Maps on my BlackBerry and a pretty awful paper map from the hotel I was pretty sure I knew where I was going. There were landmarks along the way and I was recognizing them. Or so I thought. Getting lost is just part of the adventure, however, and before I realized just how off-track we were an even better discovery came along.
I think we might have been at Konstablerwache, but that’s just a guess. What I know for certain is that we had stumbled into an open-air market that was bustling, and it was time to eat. And drink. Sure, it was only about 10:30am, but there were a number of vintners amongst the stalls and they had tastings running. Who was I to insult them by not partaking??
We found pastries and brats. Butchers selling uncooked meat outnumbered the grills running, but not by much. There were produce stalls and flowers and other stuff, too. Eventually we settled on a breakfast menu – pastries and wine (white for breakfast, naturally) – and relaxed at a table, letting the bustle of the market swirl around us.
The break for breakfast also gave us the opportunity to regroup on the navigational front. It didn’t take us long to figure out where we went wrong and adjust our plan for finding the market we meant to visit. And given the historical significance of the Kleinmarkthalle (plus the opportunity to find something else to do in Frankfurt) we set out on our way. Just a few minutes later we were where we meant to show up.
The Klein Markthalle is larger and a bit better organized than the outdoor market. It also had a broader variety of shops, but only by a bit. Stuffed peppers and pastas and more "interesting" cuts of meat on offer than I’ve seen in a while.
Eventually we settled on a menu for our picnic, collected the necessary bits from the vendors and headed out to enjoy a sunny afternoon along the river.
Both were thoroughly enjoyable, though I doubt that the outdoor version runs year round. I suppose it mostly depends on when you’re in town as to which you should plan a visit to.