London: One of My Favorite Cities

I often get asked about my favorite cities in the world and it is hard to not put London at the top of chart.  I have been about 30 times over the years and always look forward to my return.  As Samuel Johnson famously said, “If you have tired of London, you have tired of life.”

If you think about it, the American equivalent to London would result if you pushed Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC together.  London is the political capital, the historical center, the financial hub, and home to the arts and theaters.  It is easy to get around on foot and via public transportation and has, over the past 10 years or so, dramatically improved from a culinary scene perspective.

The laundry list of attractions and sites is exhaustive and easily found in any guidebook or website and it is not my attention to supply a “top 10″ list.  However, I might highlight a few or my favorites that are not necessarily hidden gems, but might not be at the top of everyone’s list.

Hotel

I again find myself at the Strand Palace Hotel for this trip.  While I have stayed at a number of different properties in and around London, the Strand Palace is almost impossible to beat for location, amenities, and cost.  Every once in a while I will stay at a Hilton property if I am using points and have been in about eight of the London locations, but one can rarely book at night in one of their properties for less than 150 GBP.

By contrast, I’m staying at the Strand Palace for 100 GBP per night with free wifi and a free travel card for each day of my stay.  The room is very small but functional and I’m literally steps from Covent Garden, the West End, four tube stations, and tons of restaurant options.  The only thing to consider with this property is that the rooms do not have air conditioning so you might regret a stay on a hot week in July.

Two New Finds

This week, I walked by a new business several times and finally popped in to try their service.  Ted’s Grooming Salon is in the Holborn area just east of Covent Garden.  They have been in business for about four months now and every time I passed, it was busy.

While they offer haircuts, I opted for a traditional shave complete with all the works.  First, he gave me a quick shampoo with cold water to help me cool down from all the walking around I had been doing that day.  This was followed by a face balm that was massaged into my face followed by old-style hot towels wrapped around the head.  Then, warm shaving cream applied with a brush and a straight blade shave that is surely the closest shave I’ve had in a long time.

The most unusual thing about the entire experience came towards the end – after the hand and arm massage.  I smelled something burning about the time I felt him gently tapping me around my ears.  I was a bit surprised to open my eyes to see him with a small metal torch that was lit and that was what he was tapping me with.  He was actually burning some of the small hairs off.  It didn’t hurt, but was unexpected.

All of this for just under 20 GBP and this is a an indulgence I look forward to on my next trip.

The second discovery I made this week was the Top Secret Comedy club in the same neighborhood.  With a 1 GBP cover charge (and voluntary donation at the end), we got four acts plus an emcee who may have been the funniest of all of them.  A small venue where you get to sit close, it was a great time.  By contract, I went to the 99 Club the next night and, while more critically acclaimed, it did not measure up to the previous evening.  The other London area comedy club I could recommend is Up the Creek in Greenwich which is a fairly large venue that attracts top talent.

Definitely will go back to the Top Secret club..

Hampton Inn – Waterloo: New Option in London

Over the years I’ve been visiting London, I’ve had a chance to stay in many of their properties in and around central London.  In the past two years, they have expanded their DoubleTree brand and have now introduced the Hampton brand.

This property offered an outstanding “Points and Money” option for the dates of my travel and, given the high cost of hotels in London, I jumped at it.  This four night stay cost me 20,000 points and 55 GBP per night.  My total bill was right about 250 GBP – the equivalent of just over $400 USD in a town where nice hotels routinely run to $250 USD per night and higher.

The location, 157 Waterloo Rd., is just two blocks south of Waterloo Station, a major transportation hub and a fairly short walk of 15 minutes can take you past the Southbank area and over the river to the West End.  Several restaurants and pubs are in close proximity and the famous Old Vic theatre is on the same block.

I did have the opportunity to have dinner at the very popular pub The Fire Station, which is named for the building it inhabits with ample evidence of its previous function.  This place is absolutely packed after work but offers a separate dining area that has a high-end menu and excellent steak offerings.  A ribeye dinner with two pints of beer ran to 42 GBP, so it is not inexpensive but I was very happy with the meal.

The Hampton is very modern, the rooms were comfortable and clean, and the service was always outstanding.  They have been open for only two months but seem to have hit stride quickly.  Their lobby has a unique approach with a bar area that is an extension of the front desk and service by the front desk personnel during non-peak times.  It reminds me of a bigger version of Hyatt Place’s combined front desk/bar area.

This is definitely a good option and one that I will check on when making future bookings in the London area.

 

How Delta Handles IRROPS vs. United

A few weeks ago, I talked briefly about the implosion that occurred with United Airlines when the “polar vortex” hit Chicago and the Midwest and what they did wrong or, at least, didn’t do right.  This week, Delta’s hub in Atlanta and much of the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic was hit with unusual winter weather that created significant Irregular Operations (IRROPS).

There were several things that went wrong for United a few weeks ago.  Of course, they cannot control the weather but they have operated out of Chicago for a long, long time and have signficant experience with cold weather and snow. Additionally, American Airlines, who also has a significant hub in Chicago, seemed to fare much better in regards to cancellations.

The specific problems that went beyond the weather and actual flight cancellations were:

  • Lack of notice – I only learned about the cancellation of my flight upon going to United.com to check-in the night before.  Of course, the sooner you know about the problem, the more options that are available for rebooking.  I never received an email or call from United even though they had my info in the record.  Had I not checked on-line, I could possibly have found out only a couple of hours before my original flight.
  • Inability to Reach United – Upon discovering the cancellation, I tried repeatedly to get in touch with United.  I probably tried phoning them 20-25 times.  In each case, after spending 10-15 minutes navigating phone trees and holding, I was disconnected with a message that either said “All agents are busy.  Please call back.” or “We are experiencing technical difficulties.  Goodbye.”  In other words, one could not even get in the queue.
  • Website was Useless – While trying to reach them via phone, I also tried to use their website to book alternate flights.  This function simply did not work.  At all.
  • Email and Web Form Not Answered – Well, in fairness, they did respond – six days into my trip with a message that basically said, “We hope it worked out for you.”
  • United’s Twitter did Respond but No Help – I direct messaged United Twitter account before heading to bed and did get a response overnight.  They offered to rebook me for the first two legs of my trip for five days later and told me that I needed to contact US Airways for the remaining legs (I was traveling on an award ticket issued by US Air).  This response did not help and was inaccurate.  Once the IRROPS begin, United owns the itinerary.

Had it not been for the great work of a couple of local ticket agents, the two week international trip would have been completely scuttled.

Now, let’s turn to Delta and their handling of IRROPS today.  I was scheduled for an early flight out of PHX, connecting to DTW, and then into LEX.  Upon rising, I discovered that my 7:05 a.m. departure was delayed until 10:30 a.m. and I would not make my connnection.  While checking the web, I received an email and a phone call on my cell letting me know the same information.  This was right at two hours before the originally scheduled departure.

I went to Delta.com where the delay was noted and the proposed rebooking was already in my record for acceptance, if I was happy with it.  The proposed rebooking was PHX-DTW-LGA-LEX and would get me in about six hours later than originally scheduled.  The website allowed me to look for alternatives and showed a 6:00 a.m. departure through ATL that would get me in about 3 hours earlier than originally scheduled and that seats were still available.

Since I was up a little early and staying by the airport, I figured I could make this earlier flight.  I was not able to rebook the flight on the website – it gave me an error – but I called the Diamond Medallion line and, after 14 minutes of hold time, was able to book the flight.  In addition, the phone agent called over to Operations to have an aisle seat unblocked for me and got me an aisle since it was close to a fully booked flight.

A hotel shuttle ride to the airport, printing of the new boarding passes at a kiosk, a quick trip through the TSA PreCheck line with my shoes on and liquids in my bag, and I was at the gate.  Then, I just got lucky and scored a first class upgrade when someone did not check-in for their confirmed seat.

All the things that United got wrong, Delta got right.  In fairness, I have the highest elite status with Delta and my experience might not reflect what others without status might have experienced.  But, the key issue is that the systems worked – the automated emails and phone calls, the rebooked flights available for review on the website, and the ability to connect with a phone agent.

Will I give United another shot in the future?  I’m sure that will happen based on schedules, routes, or price at some point in the future, but the real question is why would I not fly Delta?  I don’t get paid by Delta.  I don’t get promotional credit from Delta.  Delta sometimes frustrates me or screws things up.  But, credit needs to be given where credit is due.

Delta – What Most Travel Bloggers Get Wrong

If you spend some time looking at travel blogs around the web, you’ll find a common theme – Delta sucks.  Many of these bloggers are great experts on award travel, the points game, using credit cards to get miles, and how to find some of the best award seats and I have learned lots from many of them.  But, many of them seem to hate Delta.

But, what they really hate is Delta’s frequent flyer program.  They’ll tout the much greater availability of award flights on United or the upgrade certificates that American offers on trans-continental flights and they’ll tell you all the bad things about Delta SkyMiles – how the program keeps getting devalued, the lack of availability of low level award seats, the inability to book one way awards, and the broken Delta website search engine.  Many of these are valid points.  As a regular Delta flyer, there are some things that I think could be improved.

What they rarely talk about, however, is the quality of the flying experience.  At the end of the day, if you are a butt-in-seat traveler – and many of them are not – a frequent flyer program is only as good as the product you get to experience in the end.

For example, I recently used award miles to fly some long haul flights on United.  United is often touted as one of the best frequent flyer programs on the market, largely due to award availability and their Star Alliance membership.  My first flights occurred during the “polar vortex” and United simply froze up.  Seriously.  You could not even get in the queue on the telephone, their Twitter service offered to rebook me, for only part of my journey, five days hence, and my email to them got a response over a week later basically saying, “We hope it worked out for you.”  Yes, there was some bad weather, but United’s systems imploded.  If not for some local counter agents who were great to work with – and don’t actually work for United – I might have never gotten on with my trip.

Then, on my return flight to Chicago from Frankfurt, Germany, I experienced their 777 business class product that has the most cramped business class I could have imagined with eight seats across vs. the four that Delta puts on that same piece of equipment.  Four seats in the middle in business class…wow.  And, then there is the constant moan I hear from frequent flyers on United who, since the merger with Continental, have only experienced pain and suffering and a devaluing of their benefits.

So, while United miles may be great as to award availability, the actual experience may not be that great.  US Air, which recently merged with American, is also a Star Alliance member.  But, fly a few times on their airline and you will soon be cured of any desire to do in the future, especially if you have to go through one of their biggest hubs in Philadelphia.

Delta offers the best in-flight product and customer service of any of the “legacy” carriers in the U.S.  Perhaps my view is a bit skewed as a Diamond Medallion member, but it seems like Delta keeps winning the rankings of major domestic carriers as was recently reported in the Wall Street Journal.

Airline Rankings 2013

Airline Rankings 2013

Look at the chart and tell me how much you would want to fly on United week in and week out?

Delta recently introduced upgrade certificates on international flights to be more competitive with American’s offering.  They already have a better policy for redepositing award tickets as long as it is done more than 72 hours prior to travel.  They recently introduced a change to their Sky Club access that was almost universally panned by the blogger community but applauded by people like myself.  Again, there seems to be a vast gulf between the perceptions of those who travel primarily for award travel accrued by credit card spend and those of us who are on planes pretty much every week.

That’s what they get wrong.

Vietnam/Cambodia – Final Thoughts on Trip

Now that I’m home, but awake in the middle of the night, I’ll share some final thoughts and cover a couple of miscellaneous points that never got into the previous posts.

Over the course of the past two weeks, I’ve covered 22,775 miles by air – the circumference of earth is 25,000 – and another couple of hundred by foot, bicycle, and tuk-tuk.  My time worked out about right.  I might have enjoyed the other day I was supposed to have in Hanoi, but everything else felt about right.

I might have over-packed a little bit.  I could have gone with one less undershirt, one less shirt, one less pair of socks, and without my Canon Elph, which I rarely used.  And, I didn’t need all the toiletries I took.  Maybe a few more protein bars might have been nice.

This trip allowed me to see what a third world country looks like but without the fear that would normally go along with that experience.  That was one of the things that impressed me about Cambodia.  Here is a country that is dirt poor and yet they were friendly, polite, and without seeming resentment.

Vietnam

Vietnam is already on the rise.  Vietnam won the war against the U.S. and unified the country in 1975 but remained isolated for years.  In 1986 they introduced a number of reforms – both poltical and economical – that started them on the path towards reintegration into the global economy.  The U.S. didn’t lift their embargo on Vietnam, a result of the war, until 1994.  By 2000, they had established diplomatic relations with most countries.

Since that time, they’ve been bringing a lot of outside investment into the county and have had one of the fastest economic growth rates in the world.  Their textiles business is a huge industry and if you check your clothing labels, you might be surprised how often they say “Made in Vietnam.”  You might also be surprised to know that they are the 13th most populous country in the world with about 90 million inhabitants.

Cambodia

Cambodia, on the other hand, is still grappling with poverty, infrastructure, and political issues.  I talked about the terrors of the Khmer Rouge regime that was in power from 1975 to 1979 but didn’t really talk about the fact that armed conflict continued for many more years.  It was not until 1997, only 17 years ago, that armed conflict ended in this country.  In 2013, they ranked 138th out of 187 countries on the Human Development Index.

Political power is tightly controlled and there are some on-going tensions for both political motivations and economic ones.  The protests in Cambodia in the past month have been a bit overshadowed by the more volatile ones in Thailand during the same time frame.  While I was in Phnom Penh, I happened to be walking by the Royal Palace as they arrested one of the union leaders who has been protesting against the government’s handling of recent protests by garment workers.  Luckily, there was no violence in this one like the one a couple of weeks ago where four garment workers were killed by riot police.

What are the government workers protesting about?  They currently make $80 a month.  The government is proposing to give them a raise to $95 a month.  They want $160.  The fact that the government is the one who is setting the wage tells you a bit about the nature of their government.  They are nominally a parliamentary representative democracy but have been described as “vaguely communist free-market state with a relatively authoritarian coalition ruling over a superficial democracy.”

But, there have been signs of new growth in this country.  The Koreans are investing heavily in Cambodia, followed by Japan and China.  Let’s hope the current unrest doesn’t upset this positive direction for the Khmer people.

Motorbikes, Tuk-tuks, and Traffic

While I did talk about this several times in my posts, I was never able quick enough to get pictures of how many people and things can be crammed onto one vehicle.  I routinely saw four people on one motorbike and, twice, saw five people on one.  Two or three year olds were routinely hanging off a leg or standing on the cross bar at the front of the bike.  I can assure that I saw no infants in car seats.

The other talent they have is how much they can transport on one motorbike.  In Phnom Penh, I saw a couple of guys strapping a mid-size refrigerator to the back of one motorbike.  Ladders, 4’x8′ pieces of wood, live animals, you name it.. These pictures are not mine, but are indicative of what I saw..

Six on a motorbike?  No problem.

Six on a motorbike? No problem.

The family that sticks together..

The family that sticks together..

I have one delivery to make than I'll take Grandma home.

I have one delivery to make than I’ll take Grandma home.

Who needs a truck?

Who needs a truck?

It also seems they have some different regulations around seat belts.  While we can’t have kids ride in the back of the station wagon any longer, they don’t seem so concerned..

Everyone, pile in!

Everyone, pile in!

What to say?

What to say?

Yes, I realize that we really don’t have “station wagons” anymore.

It was a great trip and I’m glad to be home.  While much of it was “free,” the reality is that it wasn’t really free.  The cost of it was all the time I’ve spent on the road over the years on planes and in hotels.  I’m not complaining, mind you.  I feel very fortunate to be able to do a trip like this and my family is more than supportive.  The girls liked their exotic t-shirts and know that I’m not anxious to go on another trip like this for a good little while.

I hope you have enjoyed the reports.  Now, it is back to such exciting things as arguing about which is the best airline, whether a hotel was good value, and other earth-shattering insights that only roadies really care about.

United’s 777 Business Class – FRA – ORD – LEX

After the quick overnight in Frankfurt, it was time to finish up the trip with United in their newly configured Boeing 777-200 business class.  Of course, I was happy to be flying business class instead of economy for this nine hour flight but, overall, disappointed with this product offering.  Here are the pros and cons of this business seat.

What I didn’t like about the seat

  • First, they are crammed in with 8 seats per row in a 2-4-2 configuration.  I’ve never seen this kind of density in trans-continental business class.  They are able to offer 40 seats in this class, as a result, but with little privacy and difficult aisle access for windows and middle passengers.
  • Very little privacy and not much room.  There is a shared armrest but no seat back pouch or any other real area to store small items.  Luckily, the section was not very full and I was able to move to an aisle with and empty seat beside me.  If I had not been able to do that, it would have been a much worse experience.
  • The aisle seats feature armrests, on the aisle side, that are designed to move to different heights.  In both seats that I sat in, it was extremely difficult to get them to lock into place.  The first one would not lock at all and the second had to periodically slammed into position.  It sounds like a small thing but having a floating arm rest is not comfortable for nine hours.
  • The length of the seat in lie flat position was good, but very narrow.  It really almost impossible to turn onto your side in the lie flat position without being pretty ramrod straight.

What I did like about the seat

  • I’ve read other reviews that say that the seat is too short but I do not concur.  I’m 6′ 2″ and the seat was plenty long when in lie flat position.
  • The seat comfort was pretty good in most upright positions.
  • The AVOD system was very good.  The screen was beautiful and, I’d guess, about 17″ in size.  A good selection of options and a remote that was very responsive.

The food service on the flight was fine.  I didn’t particularly care for the main course options, but others may have loved them.  I also thought the flight attendants that I interacted with were great.  I’ve read many reviews in the past year about “surly” flight crews, but my experience on this flight was just the opposite.

Overall, it was disappointing compared to my usual experience with Delta who, by contrast, have only four seats across on their transcontinental 777 business class configuration.

After a 3 hours stop in Chicago, I finished my trip with a short one and a half hop down to LEX, arriving right on time despite another round of snow and freezing temps in both Chicago and Lexington.

Headed Home on Thai Air – PEN – BKK – FRA

I’ve never flown Thai Air before but had a short 2 hour flight this morning from Phnom Penh to Bangkok where I picked up my 12 hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany for overnight stay.  My seats were booked in their “Royal Silk” business class so was looking forward to their offering.

What I Liked about Thai

  • Service was very attentive and professional
  • The menu and wine list impressive if one is into high cuisine.  There was some stuff I tried that I didn’t particularly care for but it was all presented nicely.  For instance, the various appetizers and sides included foie de gras, salmon, shrimp, and various items that I do not recognize and did not particularly care for, to be honest.
  • I’m not a wine connoisseur but was impressed they were serving a 2004 Bordeaux as an option.
  • In Bangkok, they have a spa where they provide a complimentary massage pre-fight.  You can choose a neck and shoulders or foot massage.  I opted for the neck and shoulders which lasted about 20 minutes and was very good.
  • While I didn’t really partake of it, their food selection in their business lounge was pretty varied and had enough heft that one could make a meal of it.

What I Didn’t Like about Thai

  • Really only one thing, their business class seat.  I was on the Airbus 340-600 with an angled lie-flat seat.  It just wasn’t very comfortable in any position.  And, it was very noisy when changing positions as the person across the aisle seemed to do for most of the flight.

Hilton Garden Inn – Frankfurt, Germany

Upon arrival, I was very happy with my selection of the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport.  Since I’m only staying overnight for an 8:00 a.m. flight in the morning, I wanted something easy and reliable.  I did not even have to step outside as the hotel, and the adjacent Hilton, are connected to the terminals by walkways and are just by the rail link station.

Tomorrow morning, I finish the trip.

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