Star to Europe Part 2 Train vs Plane (TrenItalia vs Meridiana)
The second part of the trip is about our travels within Europe. Please read Part 1 of the journey as well. Star To Europe Part 1 IND-MXP (w/New LH Bus.) Pics (by RoseFlyer Mar 12 2005 in Trip Reports)
As we visited Milan, Florence and Barcelona, we would have to do some short haul traveling. We used the train from Milan to Florence and flew Meridiana from Florence to Barcelona. Even though you can fly Alitalia, the train time from city to center to city center was about the same as flying, so we chose to use TrenItalia and get a new experience. So if you would like to read on about two Americans trying to navigate the complicated Italian train network, then read on, or you can skip down to the flight section. We were really ignorant about the whole situation as neither of us read up on what to do, so confusion was ubiquitous.
February 27, 2005
Milano Centrale – Firenze S.M.N.
Dep: 12:35pm Arr: 4:30pm (estimates)
First Class Cabin
We were staying at the Hotel Excelsior which is in the heart of Milan and conveniently located right next to the train station. Zone1 and I tried to look through the timetables that we had and noticed that there were hourly trains to Florence and that there was high speed service as well. We checked out at 11:30 and went to the freezing cold train station, which was right across the street. It was all open air and the temperature in Milan was hovering around -2 C; we were quite cold. We went to the information center so that we could hopefully decipher what it was that we needed to do. The travel agent had already prepurchased the tickets, so we wanted to know how we were to get on a train and which one to go to since we were not experienced on trains. I had taken a train in Italy about 8 years ago the last time I was in Europe, and had taken Amtrak and light rail while CalTrain is Zone1’s only experience with trains. The man said that the next train was at 12:35 and that we should just board. He wasn’t all that helpful, but then he at least spoke English. Zone1 and I don’t speak a word of Italian, and I speak Spanish rather well, but it wasn’t helpful. In the entire train system the only language used in Italy is Italian. There was not a word of English anywhere. Flying on the other hand is a lot easier since they cater to people that don’t speak the local dialect. So this was the first frustrating thing that was a recurring problem, but what do you expect? You are in their country so you just have to deal with it and be confused. Many Americans haven’t realized that though, and I have heard Americans screaming at taxi drivers, or flight attendants or whomever else since they didn’t speak English.
The station in Milan was so convenient if you could actually understand what was going on. There were no hassles about checking in luggage or security. It was all simple. Just buy a ticket and get on a train. No need to check in for any purpose. You could arrive 10 minutes before departure and be completely fine. If you have a good train system like EuroRail, then trains are a wonderful thing, but alas we are stuck with a money losing disaster called Amtrak in the United States.
We went to the track at about 12:10 and found someone that could point us in the direction of the correct train. Trains are only listed as their destination and Zone1 and I had no idea where a train going through Florence might end up at the end of the day, so we were rather confused again. We finally went to the train that said Roma. We knew we had first class tickets, so we got on a train that had a number 1 on the side of it. Our next question was however, where are you supposed to sit on a train. Each first class car was divided into 8 cabins that had six seats facing each other in a 3 and 3 configuration. We didn’t see any signs so we just sat in a compartment with the intention of moving if someone came with a plausible reason. Well about 5 minutes later this big group of people all conversing in English (but it was evident that most of them did not use English as a primary language) came by and said that they reserved the cabin. So Zone1 and I got up and looked for a different cabin. Finally we found a young lady that spoke enough English to help us out. She said in muddled English that she saw that the last two cabins of each train are open seating. So we asked to sit in her cabin. Finally we were good and sat down to relax with our suitcases over our heads on the racks.
The train departed on time. We quickly realized though that we were on a slower intercity train. Apparently there were different trains that a person could take while going to Florence, but none of us had any idea of what was going on, so we were happy to be on a train that most likely was going to the right destination. All of the announcements were in Italian and weren’t all that useful. We did have a map so we could get a general idea of where we were as we passed through the flat Italian country side. There were pockets of snow in places as it was winter, but nothing to evident. We just sat in the car for hours staring out the glass window and occasionally reading.
The conductor finally came around and we handed him our tickets. We cringed as we did this hoping that he wouldn’t throw us off the train for having the wrong tickets or something else stupid. But he just stamped them and looked for the lady’s ticket. Well he booted her back very quickly since she actually had a second class ticket. After her removal we enjoyed a cabin to ourselves and conversed freely while looking out the window.
An interesting thing was going on in this train car. There was a model shoot going on. We noticed when a woman in an obscure and sexy peacock like outfit walked by. We then noticed that the group that had kicked us out of the previous cabin was a group of models and photographers. They were taking pictures in the train car aisle and in their cabin as well. That was certainly nothing that you would ever see on an airplane. They were taking pictures all the way to Florence.
The train stopped for a while in Bologna. Apparently it was a big stopover and whatnot. We then were off again and started to climb into the mountains. Stupid me never realized that Florence was actually in the mountains. I guess I should have consulted a geography book ahead of time, but instead I was studying for my Mechanical Systems as well as Fluids and Thermal Systems final exams right before the trip, so cut me some slack please. The conductor came by again to see our tickets. I was a little shocked and realized that I had no idea where I had put them. So I looked and looked and eventually found them in my bag while the conductor was just glaring at me and making me feel about 3 inches tall.
Finally we arrived at a station called Firenze. We were totally confused though since our tickets said Firenze SMN. No other city had multiple stops, so we were busy trying to get an explanation from the local Italians on whether or not we should get off. Finally a woman conveyed through gestures while with my knowledge of Spanish and English I deciphered her Italian into meaning that we needed to wait for one more stop.
The train quickly was off and a few minutes later we were in the center of Florence. It is so convenient that the train goes right into the heart of the city. I am used to flying, and airports are a major hassle since it seems like no one ever allows an airport to be constructed close to where people want to go. We were out in no time and after trying to find out where the hotel that we were staying at actually was, we just got in a taxi and were off.
Overall I liked the trains even though they were hard to deal with. There were no big hassles and people were laid back. There was no bad airplane food or whatever. If you are hungry then just go to the dinning car. Overall it makes perfect sense and I believe that flying has gotten way to complicated and complex with the bazillions of different tickets, confusing food options and assigned seats. Flying on short flights would be easier if it was more like some of the airlines of old. But unfortunately in today’s climate it is impossible for it to happen that way, but Ryanair is trying to change it since they are pretty much the bus or train of the sky. Of course I would never want to be on a long haul train and prefer all the niceties of premium travel, but for the short haul all I want is a seat and the least number of hassles possible.
March 2, 2005
Dep: 11:45 (Actual 12:20)
Arr: 1320 (Actual 1405)
Equip: A319 Seat 5D/F
Load Factor: 60%
The travel agent had arranged for a car to pick us up at the Hotel Gallery Art in Florence. The ride to the airport was a little long since the airport is a decent distance away from the little turisty part of the city. We arrived at the airport 2 hrs and 30 minutes early. FLR isn’t a very exciting airport and we were not allowed to check in yet for the flight. We wandered around outside, but there was nothing but fences and it was still really cold. Eventually Zone1 went up to the second floor and did a bit of spotting, but nothing really came out that great.
We were checked in by a nice friendly agent that spoke good English, 2 hrs early and asked for a window and an aisle seat and hoped that no one would take the middle (which fortunately was the case). This was the only flight apart from a UAX flight that we were in economy. The travel agents booked our tickets through United Airlines, but the cost of the business class was 3 times as expensive and as you will read later, there was absolutely no difference in the cabins. Upon check in after we gave our bags we were given a little note. It said something of the nature that “due to the actions of the cabin crew and labor disputes, we cannot guarantee any of our catering services for this flight.” It was a weird thing to get, but it basically meant more labor problems-what a surprise for Italy and its aviation industry.
After check in we wandered past security. Security was a small little thing and looked like it was added after the airport had been built. The Italian screeners were pretty laissez-faire. I didn’t even take my wallet out of my pants. Anyway, we then proceeded into the departure lounge. Since there are no jet bridges at FLR, the departure lounge is at the ground level. The one really weird thing about FLR is that the lounge outside of security has better views then the gate area. There are 6 gates in the terminal and each of them is basically a door into a bus. It was not exciting at all and had a small shop and food stand. So far the train stations are beating the airports if you are keeping track. Also with the doors to the busses constantly open for people boarding, the room was very cold (just like the train station).
Finally boarding was announced. We then went into this bus after a mob of people rushed the ticket agent. It was more orderly then say an Indian mob for boarding (like I have experienced on Indian Airlines), but less orderly then an American mob that consists of many business people in suits strategically placing themselves around the ticket agent while making sure that no one comes close to touching their expensive suit. Overall though it didn’t matter what order we got on because all of use would be crammed on a cold, miserable, and overcrowded bus, but people don’t really think of that when they push and shove to be the first person to have their ticket ripped in half. We then waited in the bus for a bout 20 minutes before we started to move. This seemed to be the overall trend for flights departing. Even though most airlines (with the exception of Meridiana) have their planes parked a few hundred feet away from the departure lounge in a straight shot, they still feel the need to cram everyone onto the bus, and then drive the bus for 10 seconds so that everyone can then fight to be the first person off the bus.
Our bus then took us across the airport to our plane that was sitting on the other side of the airfield. Once we got next to the plane we waited about 5 more minutes before the doors of the bus opened and everybody rushed for the air stairs. Boarding wasn’t that bad though as we were welcomed aboard by the 4 different flight attendants working aboard the flight.
The seats were leather and rather comfortable. They were well contoured and padded. Unfortunately they were severely seat pitched challenged. Even though I am 5’11, I usually have no problem in regular economy. But on this plane I was up against the seat in front. I am guessing, but I would say seat pitch is in the 29-31 inch department. Fortunately the middle seat remained open and no one was behind me, so I could recline my seat comfortably without disturbing anyone in flight.
One very interesting feature that I quickly noticed when I got on the airplane was that there were decals on the bottom side of the overhead compartments. They were showing off happy beach places and colorful scenery of destinations that Meridiana flies to. They were kind of like advertisements, but then kind of move to make the cabin feel more tranquil. I am not sure of my opinion of them. Does anybody else know of anyone that has these?
After boarding we continued to wait some more, which seemed to be the theme of this airline (if you are keeping track all trains were on time to the dot, but Meridiana keeps getting worse and worse). Finally the door was shut 35 minutes after our scheduled departure time. The 4 flight attendants then did their safety dance. In English, Spanish and Italian. I was quite impressed because they used three languages. So much better then the train system motto of “if you don’t speak Italian, then good luck getting to your destination.”
We then taxied up the runway and did an impressive clime. With FLR’s short runway and the Avro/146 and the A319 being the only jets, Zone1 was a little nervous because I told him how it was recently certified to fly out of FLR. It didn’t help that at the end of one side of the runway was a mountain. Fortunately we took off in the other direction. Climb was fast and smooth as we climbed up and over the Italian countryside.
Once we leveled off at cruising altitude the flight attendant came on over the PA and said that the flight attendants were on strike because of labor issues and that the passengers should respect this because the flight attendants are striking in a nice way. They said that there will be no service aboard the flight. I then looked in the magazine and noted the policies for strikes. It went on that all flights from like 6am-9am and 6pm-9pm must be operated even with strikes as enforced by the Italian government. As we all know, strikes aren’t an uncommon thing at all. The bad thing though was that if anyone actually paid for a business class ticket, then they were short changed. There was zero difference between the two since there was no service with the exception of a curtain between the cabins. I am very happy that we only paid 90 Euro for the tickets because the service was bad, and business wouldn’t have been any better.
I nodded off for most of the 2 hour flight. There was nothing to do, other then look out the window and read. Pretty much it was a boring flight. Not much different from the train except for the fact that the seat pitch was horrible. We then descended into Barcelona rather smoothly. There was a little turbulence as we broke through the cloud layer, but nothing too bad. The captain did a fine job of putting the bird down on the ground.
Once we landed though BCN is very frustrating. We like most flights landed on the far runway. We were 45 minutes late by this point and the taxing was horrible. We actually crossed over the crosswind runway 4 times while tracking our way to the terminal. It was a long and agonizing journey as my body was beginning to rebel at me because I had forced my legs in too small of a space for more time then they wanted. Finally we did make it to the gate after getting the royal tour of the Spanish ramp. We went into the Barcelona terminal which is really nice.
It was designed for the 1992 Olympics like much of Barcelona and was modern and open. I really liked the architecture and feel of the airport. It just felt calmer and more relaxed than a bustling American airport. We then went through to baggage claim and got our bags in one piece. There were no customs or immigration since this was an EU domestic flight. Things sure had changed since the last time I was in Europe.
Meridiana as a whole was a pretty bad airline. We arrived 45 minutes late, even though there was no apparent reason. We saw the plane waiting at the other side of the field the whole time. It just seemed like they were slow and no apologies were given. Also from what I gathered this wasn’t a short term strike or labor dispute. With no service, I might as well have flown on Ryanair. I would have at least had the option of something to drink if I was thirsty.
Pretty much the train won. It was more relaxed. There was no stupid down time like waiting on a bus for no reason. It was calmer without security. The only good thing that Meridiana offered was that they spoke English. Of the 5 hour journeys, the train was nicer in almost all respects, with its only problem being that it was boring being on a train for 4.5 hours.
Keep your eyes open for part 3. Zone1 will be writing it and it features the 24 hour long day trip back to IND using a UA 744 upper deck instead of LH. And of course any comments are appreciated. Thanks for reading.