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.

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