Time for a very tardy trip report from last summery: I hadn’t been to Blighty since my last business trip in 2003, but a couple of friends of mine moved back to England last spring after a couple of years of living in New York, and I was off to see them, and while they were working during the week, I was going to take a little cruise. Other than one minor disaster – which is why there are no pics in this report – it was a great trip!
Continental Flt 76
8 September 2006
757 (-300, IIRC)
Load Factor: est 90%
Scheduled Departure: 8:55 PM
Actual Departure: 9:15 or so from the gate, approx 10:00 from the ground
Scheduled Arrival: 8:55 AM
Actual Arrival: about 15 minutes late
I left work at about 5:00 and jumped in the car service Lincoln for the ride to Newark…usually, I prefer the train, but I had two suitcases and a small carry-on bag, and just didn’t feel like dealing with Penn Station. Got to the airport about 6:30, and had about a 10 minute wait to check in, not bad at all for an international departure. Only took about 10 minutes to get through Security. I grabbed a bite to eat, then proceeded to the gate, where boarding started right on time at 8:10. Boarding was straightforward, and I got to seat 22D and settled in quickly…one nice side effect of the liquids ban and carry-on restrictions was that boarding was faster than normal.
The door closed at about 9:00, just a few minutes later than scheduled…YES! Empty middle seat! Very welcome, since I needed to try to get as much sleep as I could, as I was picking up a rental car and driving to the Devon coast when we landed.
We pulled back from the gate a few minutes later, and the captain came on with good news and bad news. Good news: due to winds aloft, our flight time would be an hour shorter than scheduled. YAY! Bad news: due to Continental’s rampant overscheduling at EWR (my words, not his), we were going to sit on the ground for an hour, thus giving back Mother Nature’s gift. BOO! Now I guess it could be argued that at least this way, we’d arrive on time and other flights that weren’t getting the wind benefit could leave and arrive on time too…but hey, I’m greedy sometimes.
Anyway, we took off an hour later, with the usual 757 rocket-ship takeoff. Shortly after take-off, the flight attendants came around with drinks and then a light meal. The service was friendly and fast…when they came around with the second drink service I slammed a couple of Tylenol PM with a vodka-seven chaser, slipped on my noise-canceling headphones, and fell asleep. I managed about 3 hours deep sleep and another 90 minutes or so of dozing on and off – this is actually really good for me, I usually don’t sleep well at all on planes.
Eventually the sky lightened outside, and as I shook off the Tylenol PM fog, we banked around and landed at Bristol International. No jetways – we walked out into a slightly chilly English morning and down to the tarmac. I love this, getting to see the plane from this vantage is always fun. Immigration took about 15 minutes…having only dealt with Heathrow before, I was amazed at how small the Immigration area was in Bristol. Another difference between LHR and BRS is the Immigration staff – here in Bristol they were cheerful! (Although I have to admit that if I had to put up with what they do at LHR, I’d probably be a little crabby sometimes too.) After another 10 minute wait, the bag belt started, I grabbed mine, dashed through the green “Nothing to Declare” channel, hit the newsstand to get a caffeine beverage, and wandered off to find my hire car. My only complaint about BRS is the hire car facility – it’s small, sort of tacky, and feels like a temporary building, and you have to go across two different small roads and down a hill. The signage isn’t exactly clear on this at first glance. Once I figured this out, it only took about 5 minutes to get my car, and I was off to the Devon shore!
EasyJet Flt 6115
11 September 2006
Load Factor: pretty much 100%
After a fun weekend visiting my friends in Exmouth, I was off to Bristol to fly on to Nice, to catch the EasyCruise ship for a few days on the Riviera. I left about 6 AM, and other than a brief adventure where I left the M5 too soon (not realizing that the A38 intersects the M5 more than once, I took the first A38 exit as I headed north…a kind soul at a motel desk pointed me back onto the M5), I made the drive back to BRS without incident.
Bristol International is about 8 miles or so (according to the airport’s website) to the southwest of the city itself, and pretty much out in the middle of nowhere. The drive from the north M5 to the airport meanders through several little towns, mostly on a very pleasant 2 lane road. I was able to appreciate this a little more on the drive back, since I had now pretty much gotten the hang of roundabouts and shifting with my left hand (I’d driven on the left before in Australia, but that was an automatic.) After turning the rental car back in, I made my way back up the hill to the terminal, which looks small from the outside but is actually pretty spacious. Check-in took about 10 minutes, and probably would have been even faster if not for a trio in their 60s or 70s who couldn’t seem to keep track of each other or, well, anything else…at one point, one of them said – I kid you not – “where are we flying to?”
After waving good-bye to my bag (exactly one-half kilo under the limit – this was a major packing issue back before I left New York, as I’d completed packing to meet CO’s rules without thinking about EZY’s! Wound up repacking and deliberately planning to leave one of my 2 checked bags in England.), I proceeded through Security, which took all of about 5 minutes. Again, the BRS staff were very friendly and efficient. In the US the TSA folks at some smaller airports tend to be even more cranky and put-out than their big-airport counterparts for some reason I’ve never understood, but smaller seems to be friendlier in England! The departure level of BRS is a combination lounge/shopping mall format, much like a mini-Heathrow, with stores along the sides and seats in the middle. The food selection was a little limited, but decent, and I was able to pick up a copy of the new Bill Bryson book, “The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid”, to read on the cruise.
Eventually a boarding announcement was made for Group “A” to queue up. EasyJet uses a boarding zone system similar to Southwest’s, just with four groups instead of three. I’m not a big fan of unassigned seating, but for short flights it’s OK. About 20 minutes later, my group (“D”, of course, despite getting to the airport 2 hours before departure) got to board the orange and white bird. The interior was less orange than I expected, I was almost disappointed! Despite being in the last group, I got an aisle seat in row 9, next to a friendly young English couple. Boarding finished up a few minutes later, and we were off to Nice, winging our way over the picturesque fields that surround BRS.
The in-flight service was friendly and upbeat, with the flight attendants, all young women, offering us snacks for purchase, followed by duty-free. From hanging out on A-net enough, I knew that even drinks were not free, and was prepared with a pocketful of British coins just begging to be spent so I didn’t have to deal with them any more. (I don’t mind them that much, but most Americans find one- and two-pound coins annoying – one managing director at my firm dumped 19 pounds worth of coins in the charity envelope on a BA flight back to New York once…he just refused to even try to spend them.)
One oddity - I had to defeat the barrier of a common language to order drinks. “Vodka” translated fine , but “seven” was just not translating as “7Up” for some reason. I know 7Up is sold in the UK, maybe it’s just not that popular. Further confusion ensued when the attendant asked me “you mean lemonade?” to which I replied “no, I mean 7Up. Or Sprite, that’ll do.” On my many previous visits to the UK (all but one of which were business trips), I’d never encountered anyone referring to a lemon-lime drink as “lemonade.” Of course this was the first time I’ve been outside of London, so maybe it’s a regional thing? Strangely enough, when I went back to Devon I also heard Brits referring to actual lemonade as “lemonade” – on my next trip, I may just order “lemonade” everywhere and see what I get. Anyway, I eventually got my drinks, and fortified myself for what I was sure was to be an annoying experience with French bureaucracy.
The flight was smooth and passed quickly, and we landed in Nice a few minutes late, with the flight crew planting the Airbus on the runway VERY firmly. From the outside, the Nice airport is attractive, but inside the arrivals level is somewhat dark and dingy and featured entirely too much unpainted concrete for my tastes. Now remember that French bureaucracy I was dreading? Well, passport control took all of two minutes, and the clerks were very pleasant. Bags took about 15 minutes to come off, and I walked out of the terminal into a warm, sunny French afternoon. My opinion of the Nice airport just kept getting better and better, as I had zero trouble finding the booth to buy my bus ticket, and a half-hour later I was off to Monaco!
Had a good time on EasyCruise, although I’ll admit the boat was a little disappointing – it only seemed to be about half-full at best (I had a four-bunk cabin all to myself) and I never really met anyone to hang out with, or any single women at all, unlike on Caribbean cruises. Still had a good time, though, after Monaco (where I got my butt comprehensively kicked at blackjack), we went to Genoa and Portofino. On Thursday, we arrived in Imperia, but I didn’t get to see any of the town, as I had to take a train back to Nice to catch my Friday flight back to Bristol. (The boat goes back to Nice on Friday, but gets in too late to catch the EZY flight to BRS, which I don’t understand.)
I will say this, though: the next time any European starts lecturing me on how we Americans can’t get trains right and how wonderful Europe’s trains are (and yes, this has happened to me and some of my friends over the years), I’m going to just snarl one word: Trenitalia. The train from Imperia to Nice was the filthiest (dirty seats, smudges all over the windows, graffiti in the bathrooms), most uncomfortable train I’ve ever been on. The timetable says there’s supposed to be a drink trolley service – never saw one. Never even saw a conductor to check our tickets! And the main train station in Imperia had no toilets. Yep, none at all. You had to walk a quarter-mile, in the rain, to get to the nearest café to use a restroom. The views of the coast were very nice, though.
I know from friends that France’s trains are excellent, and Germany’s have a fine reputation too. But from what I saw, at least, Italy’s are actually worse than Amtrak.
When I got to Nice, it was pouring rain, and a pigeon crapped on me as I walked out of the train station. Kid you not. I’ve lived in New York for 8 ½ years and that’s never happened to me at home. Welcome to France.
EasyJet Flt 6116
15 September 2006
Load Factor: 100%
Well, pigeon-poop greeting aside, what little of Nice I saw was very…dare I say it? Nice! Unfortunately, it continued to pour rain into the evening, so I didn’t get to explore very much, but I ducked into a couple of shops, and everywhere I went the staff and locals were friendly and efficient. The parts of Italy I was in seemed to have issues with the customer service ethic – in Portofino, the shopkeepers were disinterested at best, and the waiter at the café where I got lunch was actively hostile. (The cute blonde at the sunglass shop was the only exception, she was sweet and helpful.) Everywhere I went in France (with one exception I’ll get to in a moment), service was very good and with a smile.
Side confession: being alone, tired, and not feeling like wandering in the rain, I had dinner at McDonald’s. I’m an American, what can I say? I was also curious – did they really serve beer in McDs in Europe? Was it really a “Royale with Cheese”? Yes, yes, and I was surprised to find that while the meat and cheese tasted just like the ones at home, the buns were different, very fresh and light!
Friday morning, the sun came out long enough for me to get a nice breakfast before catching the car service for the short drive to the airport, chatting with the driver all the way to the airport about her upcoming trip to Australia and telling her some fun things to do in Sydney.
Check-in for the flight was a little confusing – when I got to the EasyJet counter, the overhead screens specified a couple of non-Bristol-flights. After a while, one of them changed to “All Flights”, a couple of other lines switched to a different flight, but there was never a Bristol-specific line. After a while in which BRS failed to appear, I finally wandered over to the “All Flights” line and checked in after a 20 minute wait. Seems like EasyJet has a little work to do on consistency here, and the staff seemed a little haggard and rushed.
Now for the Strange Airport Episode of the trip: with about an hour until boarding, I decided to grab lunch, so I went to “Quick”, which is apparently France’s very unoriginally-named answer to McDs and Burger King. I’d seen one in Nice near my hotel, and wanted to try a “Volcano” burger. I got in line, and after about five minutes – all the lines were very slow - two French men (or at least they were speaking French) come up between my line and the one to the left of me. They ask the girl at the counter something, and then they apparently started ordering, because the French woman behind me started yelling at them and motioning to the back of the line. The next two people behind her chimed in as well. Amazingly enough, the counter girl took and filled their order! And it was an eat-in order, not to go…if they were rushing for a plane, I maybe could have cut them a little slack, but they were still nowhere done eating when I left.
This wasn’t a cultural thing – the French folks behind me were far angrier than I was. I wasn’t sure who to be more annoyed with: the two rude bastards, the counter girl who served them, or the manager who stood there and watched the whole thing!
(The burger, by the way, was pretty good, although not nearly as spicy as the advertising made it look.)
After eating, I went through Security (about 5 minutes, and very polite) and wandered down to the international departure gates, just as it really started to pour outside. We’re talking Florida-grade rain here, folks. To get to the non-Schengen departure gates, I had to wait in line while a tall, sad-looking Russian youth (late teens, perhaps 21 or 22 at the most) poured some sort of tale of woe to the bored French immigration agent. (I’m guessing he was Russian, the language was definitely Eastern European and there was an Aeroflot flight to Moscow leaving shortly.) He spoke almost non-stop for a good five minutes, while folks to either side of me let small children run rampant, then the French woman abruptly slammed a stamp onto his passport and motioned him through. I don’t know if he finally said something that she actually needed to hear or just wore her down with sheer persistence. I walked up, handed her my passport, and was through in 30 seconds.
After a stop at duty free to burn off some remaining Euros on cologne and a bottle of wine for my friends in England, I wandered over to the departure gate, where I found out that my flight was now projected to be an hour late. Not surprising, considering the monsoon outside. The terminal offered a very expansive view of the runway, and I watched the planes come in, each kicking up an impressive spray as they landed. Eventually our equipment arrived and boarding was announced…somehow, again I was in the “D” group. I’m presuming most EasyJet passengers check in on line.
Boarding took forever, as for some reason I wasn’t clear on – and neither was anyone else in line! – a single security officer of some sort was looking in each and every bag, slowly rummaging around. I girded myself for an argument over the cologne and wine, as the sign in the duty-free store had been quite clear that I could take anything bought there on any flight other than to the USA…but while he held up the cologne for a second, he said nothing. Maybe the factory wrapping was sufficient to assure him I’d bought it in the airport? I saw at least two people go by with open bottles of water, too.
After the Inspection for God Only Knows What, we trooped down the jetway and once again I snagged an aisle seat, although this time I had to go quite a ways back. I found myself next to an elderly English couple, who didn’t speak to each other the entire trip except when the drinks trolley came around (that’s the only way I know they were traveling together.) We pulled back almost two hours late, but the pilot assured us he could easily make part of that back up once we were in the air.
Once again the drinks service was staffed by two extremely friendly young English girls, and I bought a couple of cans of soda and a candy bar – no drinks this time, as once again I had to drive a car as soon as we got to England. Then another outgoing and friendly EasyJet staffer – a guy this time – wandered down the aisle selling some sort of scratch-off tickets. After a slightly bizarre discussion about why EasyJet wouldn’t accept Euro coins under fifty cents (“our bank won’t take them”…would it kill EasyJet to simply take them and send the occasional bag of small coins back to the Continent for deposit there?), I bought one – and won nothing.
The rest of the flight was quiet and peaceful, with a little light turbulence as we passed over the rest of the front that was inundating Nice, and we dropped over the green fields, brown hills, and various-coloured cows of southern England, for a gentle landing in Bristol about an hour and fifteen minutes late. As before, Immigration was a breeze – I almost felt guilty using the “non-EU” line, as there were only three of us in it – and bags came off the belt after about 10 minutes. Back down to the car hire hall, where the Europecar agent recognized me from the prior week – guess they don’t get a lot of Americans! – and off in yet another tiny car to the M5 and the Devon coast!
(Side note – I booked both car reservations and the Nice hotel through the EasyJet website, as well as the EZY flights themselves – and everything came off perfectly. I was very happy with the entire “Easy” group experience, and still get the occasional marketing e-mail from Stelios offering me flights, watches, and pizza. I actually bought a nice denim-banded watch off EasyWatch for the beach - only GBP 10.49 postpaid to the US. Can’t even get a “Bolex” from the junk merchants on Canal Street for that!)
Continental Flt 77
17 September 2006
757 (not sure which variant)
Load Factor: 100%, or very close
Scheduled Departure: 10:30 AM
Actual Departure: on time
Scheduled Arrival: 1:20 PM
Actual Arrival: a few minutes early
After another fun weekend on the Devon shore, it was back to BRS for the flight home. I left Exmouth at 6 AM and, other than a quick stop for breakfast, made straight for BRS.
(Side note: next time anyone talks about us Americans and our fast food, I’m going to point out that it took the Brits to come up with the Double Sausage McMuffin! MMMmmmmm…sausage…)
I got to the airport about 8 AM and dropped off the rental car, then hiked up the hill to the terminal and made my way to the Continental check-in. Check-in was a little different than what I’ve experienced before – first, a security guard checked my passport and boarding pass, then told me to move forward where a “colleague” would ask me a few questions. After a couple of minutes, a lady walked up and asked for my passport and boarding pass, and then asked me several questions about where I lived, what I’d done in England, my luggage, etc. She was brisk and professional, yet not intimidating – a neat trick. I’d never been questioned like this before, but it was just after the “liquid bomb” scare, and I can understand why…it’s a different security mentality, worrying more about who is getting on the plane and a little less about what is.
After that, I checked my bags and made my way up the escalator and through the security checkpoint, with a wait of about 5 minutes. Once again, the security staff was very friendly. I especially noticed the way they took care to make sure that if any elderly patrons (and there were quite a few on this morning) looked nervous, to make sure they were as comfortable as possible with the process. The Scottish senior citizen in front of me was having trouble getting his shoes off, and the screener told him to feel free to take his time, that he’d just have a few of us go around him so he wouldn’t feel rushed.
After security, I still had over an hour before boarding started, so I wandered through the shops and spent my last few pounds on magazines – it’s amazing how many “lad’s mags” the UK has! - wine gums (many of my co-workers back in NY have wine gum addictions, as do I!), Bounty bars, and a soda, then took a seat and split my time between reading, people-watching, and retrieving a small stuffed koala that a toddler in the next row of chairs kept throwing over the back of my chair. (Cute kid!)
Right on time at 9:45, boarding was announced, and I went to the gates. The announcements said that women were to use Gate 4 and men to use Gate 5. This seems like a relatively simple concept, since you could see right through the glass on the other side of the podium, where security guards were patting down every passenger, yet a number of couples insisted in lining up together on the “women’s” side and not separating until flatly told to by the gate staff. Yeesh.
The security check was thorough, but not that bad – we all had to take off our shoes for inspection, were gently patted down, and our carry-on luggage was searched – the guards didn’t take everything out, but removed a few items so they could see the entire contents of the bag. I wasn’t quite clear on why the shoe part was done, as our shoes had been x-rayed already. The guards were surprisingly jovial, which helped to calm the nerves of a few folks who had been unsettled by the sight of the two police officers with automatic weapons standing by the gate.
Boarding was through an airstair again, and I made my way back to seat 23C, sighing softly as I walked by the spacious BusinessFirst seats...they look very comfy. Boarding went quickly – as with my outbound flight, most passengers were carrying very little on – and we pulled back right on time at 10:30. A quick taxi, and then the 757 leapt into the air, leaving the sceptered isle behind.
Shortly after takeoff, the FAs came around with a drink service and a light lunch – a small, but tasty, pizza and some crisps. I’d already popped Tylenol PM just before we left, so I began to doze in and out of consciousness almost immediately. The flight was smooth and pleasant, and the FAs passed through a couple of more times with the drink carts. About five hours in, I woke back up long enough to read for a while and eat the two Bounty bars, then started dozing until about 12:45 NY time, when it was time to wake up for landing. We landed at about 1:15, and were on the gate about 1:10, a few minutes early.
Passport control was quick and easy, but it took about a half-hour for the bags to come off, and between thinking about driving to Atlantic City (I’d tacked an extra day onto my trip for a little jaunt to The Borgata to get in a massage and a little spa time – the rooms are comped, so it’s very cheap), hoping a friend would be able to join me on the AC run, how tired I was, and all that, I made a horrible mistake. I put my carry-on bag down next to the carousel. It’s a small nylon briefcase, and the shoulder strap broke long ago, and I was tired of holding it.
You can probably guess what happened next – my bags came off, I grabbed them and, wanting to be on the way to AC, ran off through the Customs checkpoint…without my carry-on bag. Which contained, among other things, my camera, iPod, noise-cancelling headphones, etc. I didn’t realize my mistake until after I’d passed through Customs, and the security guard wouldn’t let me back in, instructing me to go to the Continental baggage office. The CO baggage staff called their staff inside the secure area and had them look for the bag, but they didn’t see it. I filed a report (technically not a claim, since it was a carry-on bag), and the CO clerk assured me that the area was swept by Customs staff frequently and that it would likely turn up.
So, apprehensive about the fate of my bag but not wanting this to spoil the last day of my vacation, I took the monorail out to Avis and picked up my rental car. I swung back by the terminal to check again, but the bag hadn’t turned up yet, so it was off to Atlantic City.
The next day, on my way back from AC, I stopped at EWR, where the CO baggage office had my bag. I was elated…until I opened it. My camera was gone, of course, as was my iPod, the sunglasses I’d bought in Portofino and worn exactly once, a titanium bracelet I’d bought in England, and the contents of my passport/document holder, mainly a $20 bill I’d set aside, one of the old ones where Jackson doesn’t look like one of the aliens from This Island Earth. Whoever found it had taken the time to go through it in some detail – the wall charger for the iPod and the camera were both gone, but the charger for my cell phone was still there.
It could have been worse – I had my cell phone and passport in my pocket, so those weren’t gone, and I got back the Bryson book, the magazines, and – most importantly – a ring that I’d bought on my trip to Belize a few months before. I’d only paid $30 for it, but it had sentimental value.
The worst part was losing the camera – not only did I lose all the pictures from this trip, but from my trip in July to Chicago and Belize as well. Sigh.
Morals of the story:
(1) always have a carry-on bag you can wear so you don’t get lazy and put it down – if you don’t put it down, you can’t forget it, and
(2) dump your camera’s chip after EVERY trip, so if you lose it, you only lose the most recent set of pictures
Other than this disappointment, it was a great trip, and I’m looking forward to flying to Bristol again this summer!
[Edited 2007-03-25 18:23:58]