Sunday, June 8, 2008

Winging My Way Home (5/31/08)

I'll admit it, one of the things I enjoy about traveling is the actual trip. So many people complain that flying has become this horrible ordeal, but I maintain that this is only so if you aren't doing it right.

One way to do it right is to know what you're doing and plan for it, even if you're flying a low-cost airline like Southwest, TED, or Spirit. There's so many common sense things people could do to make their trips better, but since the majority of the public only flies once or twice a year they don't have the skills to handle less-than-perfect situations. These are the passengers who don't know about the carry-on liquids in a baggie rule, or who forget that they have to take their shoes off at security and so wear fussy shoes that are difficult to deal with, or who don't bring a nice snack from home on board and then complain that the food available is overpriced and tasteless. But I'm not talking about these scenarios, although it would make a great topic for the future.

No, I'm talking about the other way to have a great time flying: pay for it. Either through frequent flyer miles or through outright purchases, flying can become a pleasant day's past time.

Right now I'm on leg three of a trip that originated in San Francisco, involved 10 days in the working-class seaside resort of Blackpool, England, and then returned to San Francisco. I had a bunch of frequent flier miles available for me to use, and so I spent them on First Class plane tickets so I could go watch the British Open Dancing Championships -- the most prestigious ballroom dancing competition in the world.

The outbound trip was on United. United, like all US-based carriers, is not known for the quality of its premium -- especially First Class -- product. However, it beats sitting in the "back of the bus" for 10 hours. There was a dedicated check-in line, a lovely First Class lounge that resembled a swanky hotel lobby right by the gate, and the flight had a pleasant meal and best of all a completely horizontal lay-flat bed for sleeping, complete with poofy pillow and duvet. I slept soundly for about 5 1/2 hours on the outbound flight, which is a record for me.

Upon arriving at Heathrow, I had to walk myself through customs, immigration, security, etc. to connect with my very short BMI flight to Manchester. Really, it was an easy to deal with experience, especially after having had a reasonable amount of sleep.

My return trip was on Lufthansa. People have long extolled Lufthansa's superior service, and I was interested to try it to see.

Check-in at Manchester was as expected: dedicated First Class check-in line, and a clean modern lounge with amenities comparable to the IFC (International First Class) lounge at SFO. My flight was on a Boeing 737, it took about two hours to fly from Manchester to Munich.

It was when I arrived in Munich everything changed: the level of service and comfort went off the scale for this American girl. I usually can handle luxe service with aplomb, but even this left me feeling a little homespun!

To begin with, when I stepped off the plane a Lufthansa agent was standing there with my name on a placard. She ushered me to a Mercedes-Benz sitting on the tarmac, and drove me and one other gentleman to a special passport control area that seemed to only be for First Class passengers. We were the only people there, and the agent stamped my passport and sent me on my way. I got back in the car, and was driven to the entrance to the First Class lounge. Upon arrival in the lounge, the desk agent explained to me where things were, and took my passport so she could get the outbound Immigration official to stamp it for me in advance so that I could just pick it up when I left the lounge for my flight.

I admit I felt a little squeamish about giving up my passport, but the Immigration desk is right inside the First Class Lounge, so it didn't seem to be that big a deal.

The lounge itself is lovely and comfortable. A few moments after I sat down, an attendant offered me a drink. I asked what my options were and she said "pretty much anything" so I asked for a glass of red wine. "Chile, Italy, or France" she inquired. A minute later I was brought a proper Spiegelau glass of a nice Italian red. There are meeting rooms, shower rooms, and one corner has a box of Legos and building blocks for kids to play with. A huge screen TV set to CNN International played quietly in another corner. About a third of the lounge was set up as a buffet area, with a spread of hot and cold German treats, including sausages, fresh fruits, local cheeses, and tea sandwiches. There were tables set with linens to dine at. There was also a bar. Little treats were set on low tables around the entire lounge, including chocolates, peanuts, pretzels, fancy hard candies, and tea cookies. And if it's too much effort to get up and get something, an attendant will bring it to you if you look the least bit interested. I found myself avoiding eye contact with the attendants because they kept coming over to ask me if I needed anything.

I had thought that the little buffet with the smoked salmon sandwiches and serve-yourself bar at SFO was luxe, but this has it beat by a mile. If I were ever to open a bar, I'd like to be like this lounge: a very large living room that is comfortable to hang out in either alone or with friends, with leather chairs and sofas and plenty of coffee tables, magazines, and newspapers.

As for myself, I selected some cheese to go with my wine, and sat back to await my connection to San Francisco. Unfortunately I'm going to have to actually walk myself to my gate -- no chauffeur -- oh the horrors -- but I think I will survive. Especially since I can probably get another glass of wine on board to take the edge off my journey to the gate.

I've flown Business Class on Lufthansa before, and at the time marveled at the slamming acid trance on one channel, and the huge amounts of wine the steward served me (always alternating with glasses of water, after I had asked the first time). It was comfortable and had quite pleasant food. Now I'm very curious to see what the First Class service is like! If this lounge is any indication...well, I'm glad this is a Westbound trip because it means I'll probably be awake to enjoy the whole 11 hours!

...

Post Script: The trip was very comfortable, but even 11 hours in the lap of luxury with champagne and caviar can get tedious beyond belief. I could barely sit still for the last two hours and felt that crawling out of my own skin might be entertaining. The good news is that my luggage arrived undamaged, including the bottle of dessert Shiraz that I had packed.

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