I did this trip in Decemeber, but have only just got round to posting it sorry! Pictures are at:
In July I received an email from Austrian Airlines telling me about their upcoming offers – normally these range from good, to pretty feeble in terms of value, but every so often, there is a real gem, and this was one of those. Return flights from London to Yerevan in Armenia for £131 return including all taxes. A normal return flight is around £400, so this was amazingly cheap. Ever since reading an article in National Geographic about Armenia, I have really wanted to go, though its relative geographic inaccessibility (in the Caucuses, with ½ of its international borders (Turkey and Azerbaijan) closed), and poor international transport links, I thought it would be a destination I’d only be able to visit when I was a bit richer. Needless to say, I booked the same day the offer arrive in my mailbox, even though I wasn’t sure if I’d be free to go as it was so far in the future – the possibility of going was just too brilliant to miss! I booked my trip from the 19-23 December, just after the end of term, and back in time for Christmas. Once I had booked, I emailed 30 odd friends to see if anyone was interested in coming along – no one was until November when someone said that it sounded a bit more interesting that he had thought at first. He bought the same flights as me, but paid £350 for them (including a £50 discount – another Austrian Airlines email offer).
As some of you may know, the 19th December was the start of many days of chaos caused by fog in Southern England. I was unaware of the problems that it would cause until I got to Heathrow. When I got to Terminal 2, I was told I couldn’t go into the check in area until two hours before departure, so was sent upstairs to wait (on the floor as there were no chairs to be had). I thought that it was due to the new security measures. Half an hour later I went downstairs again to try and find the Austrian check in. Terminal 2 departures are located on the ground floor, and the ceiling is only about 8ft off the ground, so is claustrophobic at the best of times. However, due to the fog, the majority of flights had been either delayed or cancelled, meaning that there were queues of people crisscrossing everywhere – absolute chaos. I had to get from one end to the other to get to the Austrian desks, which was nigh on impossible. As I have a Lufthansa card, I could use the Business Class desk, which was thankfully empty, unlike the economy one, which was enormous.
London – Vienna (LHR
19th Dec 2006
1255-1620 – Cancelled
After waiting for a few minutes while the agents had a group huddle, a woman from the back of the economy queue came barging in shouting, asking why they hadn’t started checking in yet etcetc. The head agent then said that the flight was cancelled and they were trying to sort out connections. Argh! After a few more minutes, I was given a voucher for FOUR pounds (i.e. not enough for lunch), and told to come back for the next flight at 1625. I then had to flight with my luggage upstairs again, and found a table in Pizza Express, where I sat from 1120 until 1430. What a delight! The £4 didn’t last for long. My friend, who was coming from central London, joined me a bit later on. At 1400 I went down to the check in desk and asked when the flight would start checking in, if it would be on time, if it was full etc. The woman decided not to answer any of my questions and instead told me that all the information would be on the monitors. She was pretty unhelpful. I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken her long to tell me.
At 1425, we went down, and joined the business class queue for the next Vienna flight. There seemed to be a lot of confusion both among customers and staff about what was happening, especially as lots of people had lost their connections. Luckily we had booked a six hour stopover so we could go to the Vienna Christmas market, but we spent that time in Terminal 2 instead. After fifteen minutes, we were processed. The guy kept getting things wrong, putting the wrong FF
numbers on the boarding cards, printing the wrong tags etc. Even though FTL was on my boarding card, the points were only put on after I requested them retroactively.
From check in we spent half an hour in the queue for security, which was incredibly inefficient. After that I went to the lounge, while my friend went shopping for a hat. The lounge wasn’t too busy, and they had a plate of mince pies, which was nice, though no real food.
London – Vienna (LHR
19th Dec 2006
Actual: 1735-2020 (approx)
The flight boarded on time, but we then spent over an hour sitting at the gate, apparently waiting for luggage, which must eventually had arrived. One good thing to come out of the whole experience was that now we would be on an Airbus 321, not a Fokker 100. Since November (I think) Austrian reintroduced free food in economy; before they just served tea and coffee and a chocolate. Now they have real hot food. On this leg, they served some sort of hot cake with jam, which was not what I was hoping for. A sandwich would have been brilliant, even a pathetic Lufthansa cheese one. At least there was free wine!
We caught up a bit of our lost time en route, and landed about half eight, just under two hours before our connecting flight to Yerevan. I went up to the main Business lounge, located in the Schengen Area, which is a bit of a hassle, but lounge itself is very nice, and very empty. I changed my seat from 15B (again) to 19A, giving me a whole row to myself.
Vienna - Yerevan (VIE
19th Dec 2006
Boarding started a bit late, but soon enough we were all on the cosy Lauda Air 737. The flight was about 60% full (roughly), and the last few rows were empty. Most of the passengers were Armenian (I think), some of whom didn’t look like they were very used to flying. There was one old guy that refused to say seated (he sat in about 10 different seats before an FA
finally managed to belt him down, then was standing up when we were still on the runway after landing getting his stuff down from the lockers).
Twenty minutes after take off, the cabin crew came round with dinner and drinks. Dinner was chicken and rice, and was superb for ‘short’-haul economy class. Really good, and I even got an extra portion. The only problem was that they didn’t have any vodka. A rubbishy film was shown on the dropdown TVs, though most people seemed like they were trying to sleep, though I think it is pretty much impossible to not get off the plane feeling awful due to lack of sleep, as the flight time is 3½ hours, the time difference is 3 hours, and the flight is in the middle of the night.
The approach into Yerevan was very foggy, and it seemed as if we were just hanging motionless in the sky. Quite spooky! After about five minutes of gliding, we touched down effortlessly on the rather icy runway. We taxied after a ‘Follow Me’ car, up to the spaceship inspired old terminal of Zvartnots Airport. They are currently building a brand new terminal nearby, which is where arrivals are processed. We disembarked via an airbridge, then went downstairs and back onto the tarmac and onto a bus parked right next to the plane. The bus stank of petrol. We drove for two minutes up to the doors of the arrivals terminal, which was really glitzy. It can’t have been open very long, and was very efficient – it was a far better experience than I had expected! Once the bags had arrived, we went though customs and into the arrivals hall, which was packed with locals all wearing black/dark blue/green, and staring at the arrivals coming thought. Was a bit daunting especially when you don’t speak any of their language. There was a branch of HSBC open though so we got some money, and the tourist desk booked us a cab for 4000 dram, and it turned out to be a Mercedes S Class, which was very nice, and cheaper than what our guide book said, so it was a good start even considering the lack of sleep, and the fact that it was -15°C.
We spent three nights in Yerevan, which turned out to be a really nice city. It was my first trip to a former Soviet country in the winter, so it was interesting to see what life was like when it gets cold. I have been to the Baltics, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and much of Eastern Europe, but only in high summer, where everyone seems to move outdoors due to the heat. Whilst the sights in Yerevan and the surrounding area weren’t exactly amazing, we still enjoyed ourselves a lot. I can’t wait to go back in the summer now. Dealing with the freezing conditions was a bit trying!
Our flight back to Vienna was at 0545, so we estimated that we’d have to leave the hostel at around 0315, and get up at 0245 or so. Accordingly we decided to have an early night and try and be in bed by 10. Unfortunately, one thing led to another, and at 2 we found ourselves in an Armenian nightclub with a group of Peace Corps volunteers – not the evening we had planned, but infinitely more fun! Once back at the hostel we packed and got an earlier taxi to the airport.
The airport was stone cold, and pretty empty, so we had to curl up on a metal bench until check in opened. There were flights to Moscow, Munich and Prague all scheduled to leave a bit before us. After our unplanned trip to the club, it was a bit of a shock to realise that I was actually still drunk while trying to find the check in desks. I suppose it was better than being hungover, but either way, I wouldn’t recommend it! Leaving my friend on the bench, I walked over to what I assumed (correctly) would be the Austrian desk. I asked to check in, but they said they weren’t ready yet. I plonked my passport and ticket on the desk and then sat down on the luggage conveyer belt, and went back to sleep. It was quite funny in retrospect – a bit bizarre though! Alcohol and checking in don’t mix! I was prodded awake by the check in people when the desks opened. The very nice lady asked me how I was. I asked for a row of seats to myself at the back if it wasn’t too busy. I didn’t think she understood, as her answer was a bit jumbled. I assumed that the seat blocking request had been denied. I was also made to give an electronic thumbprint, which I thought was a bit weird as I was an EU citizen going back into Europe (I assumed it was for the same reasons as entering the US). I asked why and the woman said it was something to do with the Spanish. What? Never mind.
Once we were both checked in, we went off to security, which was brief, and then the duty free shop, which was rather unimaginative. We then had nearly three more hours before the flight – not a very welcome thought when the room temperature was hovering around freezing. The metal benches were not comfortable to lie on. Three agonising hours later, the plane had arrived (Boeing 737-600, Innsbruck livery), and everyone formed a messy queue at the gate. It then became clear(er) why they took they fingerprints. You had to rescan you thumb at the gate, to check that the same person who checked in, was flying. Seemed all a bit technology intensive. Surely a passport photo would suffice. It seemed even more perverse as my thumb print didn’t seem to have worked, holding up the queue. After waiting in an even colder room next to the air bridge, we were allowed on (in groups of 5/6) the plane. Not the sort of hassles you want to be dealing with at 5.30 am, but there you go.
Yerevan – Vienna (EVN-VIE
23rd Dec 2006
Once the ‘boarding completed’ announcement had been made, I realised that the check in lady had actually given me a whole row. Brilliant! Given how full the flight was (+90%), she had been incredibly generous. Thanks! Bizarrely, the row in front had just one person, and across the aisle, there was just one person. All the other rows seem to have 3 people squished in. Lucky me! I was willing (should the situation arise), to let someone use the aisle seat, though surprisingly no one asked. Fair enough. After being de-iced, we taxied though the very heavy fog to the runway. We sat at the end of the runway for ten minutes, inching along imperceptibly. The pilot finally announced that they didn’t have the legal minimum visibility permitted for takeoff, so we taxied to a stand somewhere. An hour later we tried again to no avail. By this time we had to be de-iced again, and refuel (can’t remember which order) and then the pilot had to get out and manually deice the engines. By this time it was light so our night flight transformed into a day flight which wouldn’t aide sleeping. The upside was that the daylight, along with the first clear weather in days (the fog finally lifted), meant that visibility was excellent. After a short take off run, everyone on the left landside was rewarded with the most amazing views of Mount Ararat, sitting just a few miles inside Turkish territory, only a few miles from Yerevan. It was the sight you see most often in pictures of Armenia, and so I was quite disappointed not to have seen it during my time there. Thank goodness for the delay! It really made my day!
The flight was a bit faster than scheduled, at just over three hours. A rather calorific breakfast was served, consisting of scrambled eggs wrapped in ham, along with bread, a cake and yoghurt. Another film was shown, but I managed to sleep though it. The cloud coverage was continuous from the edge of the Black Sea, all the way to Vienna (and on to London) pretty much. Due to the delay, we spent over six hours inside the 737, making it my longest ‘flight’ on the type, beating last summer’s 5 hours from Guangzhou to Urumqi in China.
We landed in Vienna 2 hours 40 minutes late, and taxied to a remote stand, from which we were bussed to the terminal. My friend at this point had to go off to get rebooked onto the 1020 to London, as the delay caused him to miss his original flight (0705), and I decided that I had just enough time to make it to the Vienna Christmas market, even with my vastly reduced layover.
I took the very efficient CAT into the city centre, and was back at the airport complete with some Christollen and other Christmas goodies within an hour and a half. Quite impressive I thought!
I went back to the Business lounge to check my emails and have some Champagne, before heading down the gate C57 for my flight to London.
Vienna - London (VIE
23rd Dec 2006
Actual: 1340-1450 (approx)
They announced a ten minute delay (nothing compared to the other delays of the trip), and before long, I was onboard. I originally had booked seat 20A, but then decided to see if there were any empty rows so I could sleep. Apparently there weren’t, but I was given an exit row with an empty seat next to me instead. The flight wasn’t too busy, and the service was excellent. A nice roast meal was served (infinitely better than the cake meal served on the LHR
leg). We touched down roughly on time, and got a gate next to the terminal… which once again was in a complete mess. Baggage claim in Terminal 2 must have been designed by someone who was psychic and automatically knew which belt his luggage would be on. The only monitors saying where your bags are are at opposite ends of the area, equidistant from the entrance. It’s hard to explain. It is so illogical, and again, due to the low ceilings, very claustrophobic. Bizarrely, I bumped into someone that I met in the summer in Kyrgyzstan, who had just arrived from Almaty. It really is a small world! After twenty minutes, the Vienna flight was still not on the monitors. An announcement was made saying that it had disappeared from the mainframe computer, and couldn’t be replaced, so everyone should just wait for another announcement. There was no other announcement, but I spotted my bag going around on another belt, so grabbed it and headed out of the terminal. Unfortunately the mess continued outside. There were such big queues of people trying to get into the check in area, that no one could get out. After a lot of pushing, I made it out. Phew!
Armenia is an amazing country, which everyone should go and visit, preferably in the summer. The scenery is brilliant, and everything is very good value. Austrian Airlines are much better now that they have free food again in economy, and if you can get offers like the one I did (£21 + tax!!!) then you’re laughing. Their combination of mixing Austrian mainline, Lauda and Tyrolean for flights on the same route is a bit confusing. Originally my LHR
flight was on Tyrolean, but then changed to Austrian, same on the VIE
(which changed from a F100 to A319). The VIE
-EVN was originally an A319 on Austrian, then a F100 on Tyrolean, then finally a B73G on Lauda. EVN-VIE
was an A320 on Austrian, then a F100 on Tyrolean, then finally a B736 on Lauda. What!? So confusing. Why do they keep changing? And the in-flight service varies between them as well. Luckily we ended up with Lauda on the longer legs, as their food is the best.
And finally Heathrow…. BAA, get your act together. Terminal 2 is a mess!