Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The bus gates of Zürich

I mentioned in a previous post a mild distaste for connecting at ZRH (Flughafen Zürich-Kloten). I've gone off Zürich over the years. Swiss are generally pretty lovely as airlines go, with a very high standard of service and a high level of consistency in that service. Unfortunately, their Birmingham flights are mainly a wet lease to Helvetic Airways. There are two problems with this, firstly Helvetic crew aren't as good as Swiss, both in the consistency and service senses, although on my last flight they were excellent recognising my deep need for a large G+T pronto after a mad dash to make an 18 minute connection after a delay coming in from Berlin due to snow. Secondly, they fly the Fokker 100 and usually a pretty manky specimen of them. The seating can best be described as "cramped" and they can be a bit tatty (although better than the last KLM Fokker 70 I was on where the tray table seemed to mainly consist of duct tape).

That isn't in, itself a deal-breaker and there are a number of attractive sides to a transfer at ZRH, quick efficient transfer security, a very nice business lounge, copious and plentiful smoking rooms, the availability of Sprüngli chocolates and Luxemburgerli and doable short transfers.

However, since they entered Schengen, UK flights have been banished to the B-gates, which are all bus gates, deeply unpleasant, unattractive bus gates with some of Zürich's biggest jobsworths at them (and the Swiss are the world's best jobsworths). This particular bunch love to take your cabin baggage from you at the slightest excuse and can be quite aggressive about it. My usual carry on is either a LH/LX approved cabin bag or a laptop bag. Both have been branded "too big". They will also just take your bag, no comment, just whisk it off you and tag it - no questions if there are any fragile or breakable items in there.

It all adds up to making ZRH a less attractive proposition unless I need miles and the Business Savers are on offer.

[0] *cough* washing machine *cough* "after hours" *cough* verboten

Sunday, 26 September 2010

On buying a ticket

I am not a creature of great impulse in my travel habits, most things have to be carefully planned. When I'm at my destination, things can be much more random - I can set off for a nice long walk and end up in a completely different place having just decided to bimble around randomly at some point.

My time is quite constrained, there are only certain times I can go away and this tends to lead to a set of objectives.

I have a select list of places that I wish to return to and places I haven't seen yet, normally around February or so, I'll try and book well in advance, taking into account these preferences, available fares and hotel rates and frequent flyer requirements. For instance next year will be highly constrained due to my desire to qualify for Lufthansa's Senator status. 

However, sometimes, things happen. A case in point was on Friday. I have a Lufthansa service recovery voucher which needs to be used by the end of the year, it isn't for a large amount but combined with this weekends fare sale, it had the potential to give me a nearly free flight to somewhere. The problem was that there was only one weekend where it could easily be used.

I started off by looking at the three hubs, FRA (Flughafen Frankfurt am Main) and DUS (Flughafen Düsseldorf International) have sufficiently late flights from BHX that it is possible to do a full days work and get on that flight. MUC (Flughafen München-Franz Josef Straußis a bit more tricksy and involves praying to the traffic gods, it can be done, but I wouldn't like to chance it. I do have a half day in reserve, but I'd like to consider the vacation free options first.

Sadly, the £49 fare wasn't available on the DUS or the MUC that Friday, it was available on the FRA but only on the 09:55. The fare to DUS wasn't unreasonable however when combined with a suitable Sunday return. However a quick search of hotel rates for Düsseldorf revealed that whilst it obviously wasn't Messe time, there was something that was bumping up prices quite considerably. 

The problem with the last DUS is that it lands at 20:55, there aren't very many onward connections, it's getting a bit late to go too far by train. The obvious answer is Köln, but I have a four night stay in that delightful city at the end of November managing to combine a little work with a rather pleasant leisure event and hopefully, the opening of the Kölner Christmas markets.

So I decided to look at the options with sacrificing my reserve half day of holiday. Obviously the flight must leave BHX at 13:00 or later, preferably 13:30, which rules out MUC as a transfer point and leaves me with the dreaded FRA or DUS. It must be on LH to use the voucher, which rules out the other two hub points ZRH and BRU - although as I will elaborate at some point, there are reasons against both of those anyway.

Obviously, I don't want to go too far, it would be nice not to use that half day purely for travelling and priority has to really go to three major German cities I've never gotten round to visiting - Hannover(HAJ), Stuttgart(STR) and Bremen (BRE). I have been to two of those for work purposes, but not had an decent exploration. A secondary priority should go to places I've been before but want a second (or third) look at - Nürnberg (NUE), Innsbruck (INN) and Leipzig (LEJ).

A quick fiddle with the Star Alliance timetable does the first eliminations - there is no decent connection to Innsbruck. I'm not taking half a day off to spend five hours hanging around FRA. A quick check on prices takes another two out, Leipzig is only reasonable if I'm happy to have a long connect at MUC, Bremen is, as ever, infernally expensive from Birmingham. According to ExpertFlyer there is a U fare for £37 plus taxes to Bremen, I've never seen it, every time I look, the minimum appears to be the Q fare at £215 plus taxes. At that sort of price, I'm thinking more of Swiss Business Savers and the 10,000+ miles that can be garnered from a carefully planned one as well as the added bonus of picking up some goodies from Sprüngli.

So that leaves three, all in the same ballpark with regards to the fare, all with some attractions, Hannover has a less desirable connection on returning on the Sunday, but that's not so much of a deal breaker. So it's time to look at hotel prices.

My normal first preference is for Hilton, but whilst NUE and STR have Hilton family hotels, they are not City Centre ones - I'm happy to ignore them. My next preference is for Starwood and I need a stay soon to keep my Starpoints valid, but I have one coming up in Sydney in December, so I start doing some general searches with the help of Expedia and TripAdvisor. I'm looking for a four star+, City Centre or good public transport location, smoking rooms available, preferably under £100 a night. These searches take Hannover out of the equation, as that category seems to be running a little above that for the weekend in question, that combined with the connection narrows it down to two.

This leaves a somewhat difficult choice, both cities are attractive, STR is unexplored, NUE has plenty still to explore. Both have a hotel in the right price range and location, a very similar airfare and the same sort of travel time.

Eventually, I plump for a return to Nürnberg. Stuttgart has a lot of things about it which say that it needs a summer long weekend rather than a Saturday at the end of October. Nürnberg has a rather nice transport museum in case of a rainy day and the hotel has a nice room, breakfast and internet package which suits me down to the ground.

So expect a trip report at the end of October.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Why "I hate FRA"

It's not the City, it's the Airport.

Frankfurt am Main itself is fine, not my first choice of destination, but it has its charms and merits. It's also quite expensive as you'd expect from a world financial capital. It has good museums and the annual Museumsuferfest is well worth a visit. I'm eagerly awaiting the next Wolkenkratzer Festival in 2013 as well for a chance to gain admittance to some of its main skyscrapers. It would be an excellent place to explore the surrounding areas from as it has very good public transport, but I have yet to find a satisfactory hotel there. Good wurst stands on the street though.

The airport however, is hell on earth. Well, a minor league hell on earth, there are worse out their - LYS (Lyon Saint-Exupéry) for instance is truly squalid. LAX (Los Angeles International) is a disgrace as a major international airport and the late, unlamented LHR Terminal 2 (Londump Heathrow) looked like it belonged in a bankrupt Third World country.

FRA however is a deeply unsatisfactory place, as a Lufthansa Frequent Flyer I spent quite a bit of time and money trying to avoid the damn place. We are lucky enough in Birmingham to have LH also fly to their hubs at MUC (Flughafen München-Franz Josef Strauß)  or DUS (Flughafen Düsseldorf International). I'll happily pay a £50 premium to avoid FRA and use one of those two. There are a couple of other options, but I'll explore why those are similarly undesirable in a later blogpost.

So what's so wrong with FRA. As an Origination and Destination Airport it's not brilliant, but it's not mindbendingly awful, it's the horrors of connecting there that make it my number one place to avoid in Europe. It could do with better food and drink options, but at least the ones that are there aren't atrociously expensive (just expensive). Terminal 1 is a bit of a building site and has been for the last couple of years, but apart from the signage and a general fugly feeling in some places, that can be lived with. It obviously has the nearly incomparable First Class Terminal with probably the best ground service in the world, but I'm not likely to see the inside of that for a couple of years and some of the other airline lounges are dire. The A26 "Business Lounge" frankly is best described as a slum.

It's connecting that makes FRA so horrid, especially non-Schengen to Schengen which is what most of my connections are. You arrive at a remote stand or if they feel like teasing you at a gate. You get off the aircraft and are faced with a bus even if you are at a gate. The bus then takes you on a magical mystery tour of Frankfurt airport to end up at the B50-B54 bus gates - this can take up to 15 minutes. Even if you are on another gate you still get the bus because all UK passengers must end up at the B50-B54 bus gates. This gate area is particularly vile, although I understand the B60-2 gates are even worse. For instance, there are no toilets in this dark and dingy area. If you ask why you get this, you are told it's an EU regulation, what they fail to tell you is because FRAport can't be arsed to provide the correct facilities is that they are interpreting the regulation as to just dump you in with all the other non-Schengen passengers and make you re-clear security when you don't need to.

You then get forced up a narrow escalator/stairway into the main non-Schengen area, this didn't used to be the case, but they've installed some new passageways (for the moment) which makes it a nasty and unpleasant crush.

Next comes immigration, which to be honest as an EU citizen is a breeze, you rarely queue for more than two minutes and it's a fairly cursor scan of the passport. The officers are polite and quite friendly - one or two of them are fairly cute as well.  There's something about a man in a uniform... Obviously, if you are connecting to non-Schengen, then you don't need to go through immigration here although if you are going to A non-Schengen, the Skytrain awaits. Post immigration there is a small row of Raucherhuetten (smoking cabins) for those of use who partake of the evil weed (and it's much need to fortify yourself for the next bit).

Then, if you are going leaving the airport, it's a breeze, however, if it's a connection, this is where the fun starts. I'm usually departing onwards for Schengen and I'm going from the A gates. Now the A concourse is some distance from the B concourse and they are connected by either the Skytrain or the "Tunnel of Love", but first you have to go through security. Now this security check is just inept, you can either go through the incredibly slow queues by immigration or follow the signs which lead you to the larger transit security. If there's more than about 10 people waiting at the small transit, go to the larger one.

There is the usual massive snake, which far bigger than it needs to be, but skipping under the barriers to avoid three or four empty lanes of the snake is strictly Verboten and will cause an epidemic of Vogon shouting. Be warned, whilst FRA isn't a shoe carnival airport, the magnetometers are set to fry and I suspect even your fillings will set it off. You will then be frisked. In general the security staff speak little English and in some cases their German is pretty ropey as well. They also like your wallet and travel documents in the bins to go through the X-ray, I don't like this, but it's their rules. Security will take 5-15 minutes depending on your arrival time in my experience.

Now you are free to make your way to the gate and get your next flight, but you probably have the Tunnel of Love to transit. It's a long underground passageway with blue lighting and lots of travelators. At each end there are lifts up and down to it, they are pretty slow. It's full of people running through it who realise that they have already wasted 20-30 minutes of their connecting time and have maybe 10-20 minutes to get to their connecting flight (Minimum connecting time at FRA is 45 minutes, this is really pushing it and is not recommended). If you walk on the travellators, you'll find it takes about 5 minutes to transit the Tunnel of Love. I hate the Tunnel of Love, expand the bloody Skytrain FRAport.

You emerge about 25% of the way up the A-concourse. If your next gate is in the A1-A20 range you've pretty much made it. If it's A40-something, you've got about 500m  to walk yet.  If you have time and access, there's a full range of overcrowded and unkempt Lufthansa lounges by A26. The Illy coffee stand down by the A30's is, however, pretty decent.

The main art at FRA is to follow the signs, whilst sometimes a little confusing, they are generally correct and as FRA will have changed its layout between any two visits more than a month apart it's not worth trying to work out neat little shortcuts or optimum routes. The only problem with this is access to some of the C-concourse gates where the wrong turn can mean you end up having to go through security twice.

Let's be honest, this isn't a wonderful experience. Most other European airports are much easier to connect at - inter-terminal transfers at Heathrow are no fun at all and I get badly lost at Charles de Gaulle (as does my baggage). However, virtually everywhere else in Europe is a breeze compared to FRA.

Of course, my next two sets of flights involve connecting at FRA. 

Friday, 24 September 2010

An Introduction

This is my travel diary, I'm a middle aged mildly obsessive frequent flyer whose idea of a good weekend away involves a couple of nice meals out, a couple of nice walks, an art gallery and lots of photos of the built environment. I also like exploring public transport systems and very occasional late nights out.

I'm based in Birmingham, England and I mainly fly Star Alliance airlines out of BHX - mainly to Mitteleuropa, although I do like the odd bit of long haul and I don't like my long haul in Economy Class. I have a moderately silly amount of miles banked with Miles and More which I'm saving for a truly spectacular birthday trip for a friend in a couple of years.

I mainly stay in four star type hotels, I used to stay in Hiltons virtually no matter what and was a Diamond member for a few years. These days I still stay in Hilton's but mainly because I like that particular hotel. I do, however,  get twitchy if I'm not collecting miles or points for a stay somewhere.

In 2011, I'm going to try and make Lufthansa's Senator Status on my own dime without resorting to obsessive mileage runs and still having a bit of a break on each trip. I think I can do it, but it's going to be close.