Hello, and thanks for clicking through. This is my fifth trip report for a.net; if you enjoy this one why not have a look at the first four: as you can see, I like to bring you a little bit of variety in my travels…
I was paying a bit more attention during those trips, so you’ll find a bit more information and my own photographs in each.
BACKGROUND TO THE TRIP
I moved to Montréal here in sunny (ha) Québec in September 2005, and I’ll be here until the autumn of 2006. Christmas came around very quickly and it was suddenly apparent that I had very few plans ready for the holiday period. It was all the more important to be doing something because this was to be my first Christmas away from my family. For the first time ever, there would be no mince pies, roast turkey, sugared lemon slices, walnuts, roast potatoes, stockings with clementines in them, turkey sandwiches, after dinner liqueurs etc etc.
However, my one hope for an ‘alternative’ Christmas with friends in Montréal fell through and for a while it looked like (shock horror) I’d be home alone not just for Christmas, but for almost four weeks while my flat-mate headed west to earn $$$ over Christmas in Alberta. Well, I say home alone. This year in Montréal, four cats (who are missing their mistress for a few months) are looking after me. So at least I’d have four females purring around demanding food, love and petting….
I wasn’t particularly keen on paying through the nose for flights home to the UK just to spend Christmas doing what I’ve always done at this time of year, so did a bit of hunting around and decided to fulfil a long term ambition – to visit Cuba, and the beautiful city of Havana.
In the first week of December, Air Canada were advertising heavily in Montréal’s local newspapers with offers on flights to the sun. The lowest advertised one way fare before taxes from Montréal to Havana was shown at C$189 (about US$160 or €137). That was more than enough of an incentive for me to have a little peak at aircanada.ca
And then came the drama… the perfect combination of flights: one week, out on 25 December and back 1 January were still available at that lowest fare. But I wasn’t able to make the purchase without being able to guarantee that the four fussy and aforementioned female felines would be able to be fed and watered by neighbours. When I came back to buy the flights just eight hours later, the pre-tax fare had doubled. Moral of the story kids: if you’re flying on a budget, be prepared to click ‘PURCHASE’ first and think later!
So, I settled for second best, and nabbed the last combination of flights: 22 – 29 December. The fare broke down as follows: C$377.98 base fare in Hospitality (Y) class, plus C$134.27. That made a total of C$512.25, approx. US$439 or €372 for the return flights, all in. A paper ticket was delivered by Canada Post within a week. It’s so long since I’ve had one of these it was quite a novelty to get one after all this time.
A NOTE ABOUT THE PHOTOGAPHS
This time I travelled light, and took only my trusty 35mm Olympus OM10. Plus I was on holiday, so no digital photos of the a/c or cabins, I’m afraid. I have done the unthinkable, and pillaged the a.net photo database for photos of the aircraft (and an airport!) to illustrate this report. I know, I know, I’m a bad person, but I’m practically a Canadian now, so you have to let me off… I’ve not had the time to contact and seek permission from the professional photographers who’ve taken this great shots, so I encourage you to note their details and if you see something you like, let them know.
Thursday 22 December 2005
Montréal Trudeau (YUL) to Havana (HAV)
Airline: Air Canada
Flight number: AC986
Scheduled departure time: 0750 (rotation: 0825) GMT-5
Scheduled arrival time: 1250 (actual approx: 1325) GMT-4
Type of aircraft: Airbus A319-114
A perishing early start… just a week or two earlier Montréal had suffered it’s first major snowstorm of the year in which 41cm of snow landed on the city in less than 24 hours. Luckily most of it had been cleared by the time I left the apartment on avenue du Mont-Royal at about 0430 on this fresh Thursday morning. The pavement was icy in places, and trucks thundered past me every few minutes, carrying snow out of the city to be dumped as part of the ‘deneigement’ process. I headed to the intersection of Mont-Royal and St. Denis, where the last night bus of the night on route 361 took me south to the Central Bus Station near Montréal’s new Grande Biblioteque. From there the Aéroports de Montréal chartered Aérobus runs a high frequency service direct to Pierre Elliot Trudeau. I was at the terminal by 0540. Normally I’d take STM metro and city buses the whole way, but this journey was too early for that.
So far, so smooth, but things were not so good in the departures hall. I love automated check-in: in the right circumstances, it’s a great application of technology. But at Trudeau the application is useless. The Air Canada check-in area is large but not particularly imposing. Banks of machines greet you, some of them branded Air Canada, some of them not. I tried recalling my details by inserting my frequent flyer card. That didn’t work, so I tried the credit card I’d used to book the flight. That worked, and I was able to ‘check in’ and choose a seat. I was then advised to head to the desks…
So what’s the point? If it were just baggage drop, I’d be happy. But at the check-in… sorry baggage desk, I had to present my passport and paper ticket. A surly female check-in agent ‘dealt’ with me and proceeded to spend a few minutes checking me in, typing in details etc. When she saw I was checking in a large backpack, she told me I needed a box to put it in, and directed me to a pile of grey crates stacked about ten metres away. So I guess that’s up to me to go and get one then? Good of you to mention it when I showed up… So far, a cheap flight to the sun makes for a happy James, but poor airport experience makes for a grumpy James. Despite the automated check-in machines, the whole process was no quicker than if I’d just done the whole thing the traditional way. What’s more, the information I got at check-in wasn’t exactly accurate. My gate was listed as 52 on the boarding card. The check-in agent told me that as construction work was ongoing, I should follow the landside signs to the security check for gates 1-49 instead. So I did, but when I got there was told I was at the wrong security check… etc etc etc.
Security was quick and painless, although Trudeau Security now insist all items in pockets that need to go through the x-ray in a tray have to also go in transparent plastic bag, just like the ones you tear off a roll at the supermarket. I have no idea why, it seems to be a pointless exercise and an environmentally unfriendly waste of plastic that’s thrown away after just a few minutes use.
I had plenty of time to spare, so wandered the length of the new international arm of the airport. It’s an extremely attractive space: very well lit during the darker hours (that would be November to March in Montréal…) and the palette of materials is well thought out. There are nice touches too, like stylish individual leather armchairs dotted about the gate waiting areas that break up the otherwise mundane rows of seating. The only obviously odd part of the design are the moving walkways that carry passengers along the departures arm to the further gates… why did these have to rise up out of the floor, creating such a strange divide down the middle of the corridors? Methinks someone f***-ed and didn’t leave enough room below floor level for their mechanical gubbins.
Although it was closed at the time, I peered enviously through the part-frosted glass of the new international departures Maple Leaf Lounge, recently designed by interior designer Heekyung Duqette. I had naïvely thought that it didn’t look that big from the outside… out course at departures level there is just a rather swish lobby leading you up to the lounge upstairs. There’s not much chance in hell of me ever being able to afford to get in there; can anyone report on what it’s like?
Outside, the first flights of the morning were getting ready for departure: nothing of particular interest except for one of Cubana’s Irish registered Airbus’, EI-TAB 'Mensajero de Esperanza' in her TACA colours.
Photo © Corey Karls & Sacha Cantor
I hung around the gate and had a look at our a/c for the flight. Air Canada have been very swift in applying the new colour-scheme to the existing fleet, and it looks a treat. The sparkly paint finish causes some disagreement, but regardless of the actual look, I like the way that it gives you something to discover on the second glance. If you miss it the first time, it’s all the more of a surprise when you notice it. It’s a subtle way of decorating aircraft that spend a lot of their time in very snowy and therefore very white airports.
Photo © Mathieu Pouliot
Photo © Mathieu Pouliot
Our two gate agents were on hand long before boarding began on time. Aside from business class, boarding was done from the rear of the aircraft to begin with, so I promptly headed down the airbridge ahead of most of the other passengers. AC’s A319s are configured with 14 business class seats (2 and 2) and 106 ‘Hospitality’ class seats (3 and 3). I don’t want to start the old A versus B argument (just head over to the main Civil Aviation forum on a.net for that regular event…) but for me there is no comparison, I’m afraid I’ll be an Airbus man ‘till I die… just a better aircraft.
We were welcomed by the cabin crew and pilot as we boarded, and I leafed through the December edition of the chunky ‘EnRoute’ in-flight magazine. The articles included the results of EnRoute’s first reader survey, including the popular vote revealing that the city with the most beautiful people in the world is (where else?) Montréal.
We pushed back a little late, having had to wait for the ground staff to get their tug started in the sub-zero temperatures. We were warned of an expected delay as the plane would have to be de-iced. The temperature the night before had dropped to below –17, and there was a thick layer of ice and snow on the wings. At Montréal it seems (this is my first trip out of YUL in the winter) that all de-icing takes place away from the terminal at a designated area on the way out to the runways. About three trucks with de-icing arms came out to the plane when we had come to a stop, and we spent about fifteen minutes watching the aircraft being sprayed with the mysterious purple liquid. The passengers sitting next to me wondered out loud the amount of environmental damage that must be caused every year by this chemical mix when it’s drained away…
We were soon on our way, and were rolling down the runway at 0825. During our ascent I bid a temporary farewell the white landscape beneath us, and marvelled at the partially frozen St. Lawrence River below.
We were soon at 33,000ft and service began. The flip down screens briefly showed us our route and all the stats, and once headphones had been handed out the ‘EnRoute’ branded programming began with the news, business report and sports in English from the CBC and then in French from the SRC. A classic animated short ‘The Great Toy Robbery’ still has me laughing, and it preceded the main film, which was ‘A Good Woman’. A few lifestyle programmes followed that, but I wasn’t particularly interested. The company in the cabin was very friendly, and many passengers were of course chatting about their first trip to Cuba or asking for recommendations from previous visitors. (If you’re travelling to Cuba on a budget or on your own, take full advantage of the holiday-flight-friendliness, because there’s no public transport at Havana Airport, and you can save yourself a bit if you share the CUC20 taxi fare to the city. We later travelled to the city in a six seater minivan, so if you club together it can be much cheaper.)
During this time pillows and English and French newspapers were offered, and breakfast was served. On the tray was so-so bit of bread, fresh fruit salad, juice and hot waffle with scrambled egg or omelette. Coffee, tea and all the usual soft drinks were also offered; I took the coffee black and had an apple juice. Alcoholic beverages were also offered at C$5 each and, unsurprisingly for a holiday flight, quite a few were sold (although for me it was just a little early….)
The flight passed very comfortably. Our route took us down the eastern seaboard of the United States, over Washington and down towards Florida. I caught glimpses of many places I’d never visited before, including the gentle curving forms of the Florida Keys. Just after we’d lost sight of Florida our descent began towards Havana. Through my window on the left hand side of the aircraft I could clearly see the narrow peninsular of Varadero about 100km to the east. The television screens were closed away during our descent, so it wasn’t possible to check our approach into HAV, but we appeared to take a right hand pass along the northern side of the main runway before turning and landing from the south-west. Landing was smooth and were were soon taxiing to stand 13 at Jose Martí International Airport’s terminal number three. We touched down about thirty minutes behind schedule, although I don’t speak nearly enough Spanish to have successfully explained the de-icing process to my casa hosts when I arrived…
I would reckon the flight was about 75% full, I forgot to check with the cabin crew both times because it always seems like such a suspicious question to be asking. Even though we were at the rear of the aircraft, we were off in no time at all; it seemed that the airbridge was ready for disembarkation in no time at all. I didn’t have much opportunity to check, but there appeared to be only one other aircraft at the terminal, a Cubana Yak-42 on the other side of the building.
My experience of Cuban customs and passport control was most impressive. Approximately fifteen counters were open for us to pass through, with less than two people queuing for each and it took very little to be through security and at baggage reclaim. A quick note for the common questions about travel to Cuba: if you fly with Air Canada, the cost of your tourist visa is included in your flight cost. You get it with your disembarkation card during the flight, and it’s essential to have the address of your first night’s accommodation to get through ok. A printed copy of your booking confirmation is also a good idea, and there are several websites that allow you to book ‘casa particulars’ (effectively bed and breakfasts) online and which will give you everything you need to make the process quick. Since the USA government isn’t particularly down with the idea of letting it’s citizens travel where they want to (and will actually fine or imprison any US citizen who returns to their country with any evidence of a trip to Cuba), Cuban Immigration won’t stamp your passport – they stamp the tourist visa instead, which you surrender when you leave. It’s valid for 90 days. This is true for everyone: I travelled on a British passport and didn’t get a stamp. If you’re an American citizen coming to Cuba, it’s pretty easy, just make sure that when you return to the USA that you don’t have any physical evidence of your trip (ticket stubs, receipts, papers etc…… or a shiny sun tan if you’re crossing the border from a Canadian airport in winter…)
In the baggage reclaim hall I queued up to change some Canadian dollars into convertible pesos (CUC). Bring Euros, Canadian Dollars or Sterling to avoid the 10% charge levied on US Dollars. If you think the queue looks horrendous, don’t panic, there’s another window at the far end of the baggage hall. Don’t change more cash than you need to for your first 24 hours, because you can get a better rate at one of the banks in town.
With some pesos in my pocket, my bag collected, and two friendly Canadians to share my taxi, I stepped out of arrivals and into my first Cuban Christmas…
Thursday 29 December 2005
Havana (HAV) to Montréal Trudeau (YUL)
Airline: Air Canada
Flight number: AC987
Scheduled departure time: 1350 (rotation: 1418) GMT-4
Scheduled arrival time: 1630 (actual not noted) GMT-5
Type of aircraft: Airbus A319-114
One week passed, and my pale northern European skin had managed to earn a few more freckles. It being my first trip, I stayed just in Havana. There’s more than an enough for a week, even a fortnight, just sightseeing and taking in the town. As I mentioned above, I’d found a casa particular for CUC25/night. In the lower seasons you can find these for as little as CUC15 a night, and you can usually negotiate if you’re going to be there for more than a week. It’s a beautiful city of sharp contrasts, both in the beautifully restored old town and the noisier and busier districts of central Havana and Vedado where I stayed.
Getting to the airport from the town is slightly cheaper than going the other way, because taxi drivers are more inclined to compete. Avoid the modern tourist cabs outside the hotels and find yourself an older Russian built Lada (the black and yellow ones aren’t allowed to pick you up close to a tourist hotel, so maybe ask around before you need one and arrange a pick up). I walked to the Capitol Building and took one from there for CUC15. There is a ‘camello’ bus to near to terminal two, but you’re still some km from terminal three and you’re unlikely to make the trip with all your valuables still in your possession. The trip out in my rusty bucket took about thirty minutes, in glorious sunshine and through choking smog…
Photo © Javier F. Bobadilla - Iberian Spotters
This excellent overview of HAV shows terminal three on the centre right of the photograph. It’s a modern building, easy to use and clearly organised. Notice the ramp on the landside: arrivals is at ground level, departures is above. The roads leading to the airport and the approach ramps were deserted when we arrived: the airport seems capable of handling a serious volume of passengers, which is good considering the large number of charters coming in from around the world.
I arrived early – I was advised at information that check-in would be opening at around 1130 for our 1350 departure. In fact three of the approximately 30 desks were open for us by 1100. On the screens when I arrived were flights to Nassau (CU), Cancun (CU), Montréal (AC), Cancun (7L), Camaguey (CU), Caracas (CU), Toronto (AC), Panama (CM), San Jose (DE), London (VS) and C. Mexico (MX). In addition to these are regular services to Madrid/London and Paris with the flag carriers.
Check-in was very fast and efficiently handled (half the time I’d spent at Trudeau, and no pissing about with ‘automated’ check-in). It’s a requirement at HAV that every departing passenger pays a CUC25 departure tax. I had no cash left so had to use my credit card at the adjacent change window. The departure tax is a holographic and security protected sticker that’s applied to the back of the boarding pass.
Again there were no hold-ups at Immigration (if only all customs were this efficient…). Lots of checks of my identity, the purpose of my trip, paperwork etc, but it was all done in a few minutes and I was through to airside in no time.
After this, only one regret, and that’s because I’m an arse for thinking that rum ‘would be cheaper at duty free’. I mean seriously… in a socialist state do you honestly think that they’d let departing tourists get it for less? A bottle of Havana Club was less than CUC3.50 in the bodega near my casa in Havana, and at HAV it was (of course) more than CUC5. Still, that’s somewhat cheaper than back home, so I swallowed my pride and stocked up
The departures lounge at terminal 3 is very pleasant: a large open plan space with windows on three sides and pretty good viewing opportunities, spoilt only by the fourteen gates, which all seem to have their own air-bridges. On the stands were two gleaming Cubana Yak-42Ds: CU-T1249 was awaiting a departure to Nassau and CU-T1246 was being prepared for departure to Cancun.
Photo © Mats Lundberg
Photo © Stephen Aranha
As I’d browsed the Duty Free Shop, I was convinced that I’d heard Russian being spoken by a pilot and captain who were ahead of me. And sure enough, away from the terminal to the south-west was an unexpected treat: a Domodedovo Airlines Ilyushin Il-96-300, registration RA-96006.
Photo © Jan Ostrowski
Photo © Sascha Kamrau
This aircraft hurled itself skywards a short while later: an incredible sight; such a beautiful airliner and probably a first for me. It didn’t appear to take any passengers on board departure, and no departure was called before she left – can anyone tell me where she was going, and whether she was on a positioning flight?
Not much else was happening around the terminal. Every now and then a domestic Cubana flight would take off or land, but these are all handled from the old terminal one at the north-eastern end of the runway (not visible in the overview photo above). At gate 11 the Air France pre-boarding information sign was still up from the CDG departure the night before. I looked wistfully out onto the tarmac and tried to imagine an AF 747-400 preparing for flight 479…
Photo © Jorge Rocafort
At about 1320, my previous sighting at YUL - Cubana/TACA Airbus A320-233 EI-TAB 'Mensajero de Esperanza' touched down and came in at gate 14. She would be leaving later with a service to Montréal via Camaguey. Ten minutes later I spotted a sparkling Air Canada Airbus touching down, and our a/c C-FYJB taxied in to stand 12, arriving about forty minutes late from Montréal.
Photo © Kazim Alikhan - t.dot photography
Photo © John Myers
However, this short delay was partially absorbed by a quick turn around. Boarding commenced at 1400, ten minutes behind our scheduled departure. Incredibly, we were all on and the aircraft was being pushed back just ten minutes later. Greetings and on-board information was provided in French, English and then Spanish. The usual English/French safety video was played with Spanish subtitles. As I watched it I wondered, as I usually do on Air Canada, whether anyone has ever attempted to use a computer printer on board an AC flight… (I have visions of an HP laserjet with three paper trays taking up an entire seat and a bemused businessman being informed by the cabin crew that he’ll have to turn it off).
We took off towards the south-west less than ten minutes after push-back, before turning gently to the north. To my left I could see the mountains to the west of Havana – somewhere I’ll be saving for my next trip. Earphones, pillows and French and English newspapers were offered but there was some delay in the commencement of cabin service due to some pretty persistent turbulence that started over the Florida Keys and lasted (it seemed) for almost forty-five minutes.
Once the turbulence had passed, cabin service commenced. The meals were quickly distributed – only one option today, although a number of passengers had pre-booked ‘special’ meals. There was a moist long grain rice salad, a piece of focaccia bread and a warm chicken and rice dish. A chocolate chip pastry came too, which I managed to hold off on until the coffee came round.
Our flight was largely uneventful after that. I read the paper and skipped the movie (which came first in the programming) which was ‘Sky High’ – so a family movie for a flight with no passengers under the age of 16, as far as I could see. The usual CBC and SRC programming followed, which I dipped in and out of.
With the sun behind me and shining over my shoulder, I spaced out for the rest of the flight, watching clouds and just enjoying the last few rays before we would descend into Montréal. Only one thing caught my eye during the last hour of the flight, and that was a Westjet 737 which passed us in exactly the opposite direction (perhaps heading to Florida) at what seemed like much less than 500m below and to the left of us. I’ve no idea what counts as a near-miss; there was certainly sufficient vertical separation between the a/c, but it didn’t realise that we’d have been close enough for me to clearly read the word ‘WESTJET’ on the side of the fuselage. And no, I don’t have a registration for that one, if I did I doubt I’d be here to write up this report…
We began our descent at about 1625, and came down through some pretty dense cloud. The suburbs of Montréal only came into view once we were below about 1,000ft I’d guess, and we approached Trudeau from the west, with another exceptionally smooth and comfortable landing. We taxied into the new stretch of stands between the international and the USA piers. There was a short delay (apologised for by the captain and crew) as we waited for a Aéroports de Montréal member of ground crew to come and operate the ‘new’ air bridge. Once the bridge was connected, disembarkation was quick and I found we’d parked up right next to the new customs hall. A quick escalator ride up and then immediately another one down, and we were in the vast and very attractive new customs hall.
There were plenty of windows open, and not much of a delay. Another stamp in the now rather tatty passport and then down to baggage reclaim. Here there was a wait of about ten minutes before the conveyor started moving, but (joy of joys!) my bag was the very first off. Just time to unpack the winter coat that I had rolled and squeezed into my bag when I’d left a week ago, and then out into the crowded arrivals hall. Hundreds of people were waiting here for other passengers (it looked like two trans-Atlantic flights, one AF and one KLM, had just come in). Much to my disappointment, it wasn’t actually that much of a shock stepping outside to catch the bus. I’d left Havana at 26 C; Montréal was unusually mild for this time of year and at + 1 C.
Not wanting to use the expensive Aérobus unless I have to, I waited for the STM city bus 204, and rode to Dorval VIA train station, where a STM Metrobus (no. 211) was waiting to take me non-stop downtown to the Lionel-Groulx Métro interchange. A good trick that – you can get anywhere in the city using a single transfer fare of $2.50 rather than forking out for the Aérobus just to the city centre.
So there you go – a great week away from the early winter of Québec. I’m now back in Montréal and settling in for the long haul… not much chance of a positive temperature until March. Think of me as you jet off to your own sunny destinations!
Thanks for taking the time to read all this – your comments, questions and answers are most welcome!
Happy flying everyone