BTW, this was my first attempt at a real journal, so please bear with me if the format isn't that great. Also, I'm not sure how to post some of the pictures I took, but I hope the journal is descriptive enough.
Day 1, 12 Sep 08, 22:30z (18:30 local)
I'm aboard N619AW, on flight 685 from PHX (Phoenix Airport) to EWR (Newark, NJ). The in-flight movie was "Made of Honor." Without much deliberation, I can honestly say it cracks the top 10 worst movies I've ever seen. The IFE (In Flight Entertainment) is going downhill on US Airways. Only 2 audio channels were working besides the movie audio. One was country music and the other was talk radio. Needless to say, it was a very long flight. The FA informed me that the IFE on the Airbii will be gone by October, thus the reason for the lack of IFE choices. I am amazed at how well the a la carte service is doing. Both of my seat mates purchased items. The very quiet lady sitting to my left ordered a chicken salad, and the gentleman on my right purchased a snack box. I was content with a $2 soda, as none of the food selections caught my attention. We are currently over the Toronto/Buffalo area, and the ride so far has featured some occasional light chop. I'm wondering if I made the right choice going with the Newark flight over the JFK flight. The JFK flight was delayed by 30 minutes due to ATC. I think JFK would have been nearer to the hotel, but I don't want to make my cousin Rachael wait too long -- she's very time constrained as it is. Terminal 7 at JFK has always intrigued me simply because it's one of the most overlooked terminals from all the airport and airplane hounds -- I'm curious to see how it is set up. I'm about to start descending into Newark, will continue tomorrow.
Day 2, 13 Sep 08, 18:27z (14:27 local)
I'm enjoying a moment of relaxation and peace in Central Park. New York is a fascinating place to visit, but I could never live here. There seems to be more beautiful women than the last time I was here. There were a couple of beautiful women in my tour group of Madison Square Garden. I don't know if they were from Spain or Italy -- I couldn't tell from the language they were using. One of these days I will grow a pair and learn to approach women like that. Leftover from last night: 1. The New Jersey train system sucks. It's expensive and not very reliable. 2. The cost of things -- wow! Rachael's room at the Embassy Suites was going for $700/night. I'm sure the government was paying a better rate for her than that, but still, that's just ridiculous. Tonight is the big night, my first time leaving North America. I'm nervous and excited at the same time. I still haven't decided yet between Virgin Atlantic or British Airways, but I'm leaning towards Virgin. I wrote Beata, a classmate of mine from dispatch school in Ft. Worth last year who lives in Prague, about visiting the Czech Republic, so we'll see where that leads. Last night, I dreamt that I had left my passport back home. I double checked for it this morning. It took me about three minutes to find it buried in a magazine in my backpack. Once my heart rate returned to under 300 beats a minute, I carried on with my vacation. I can't wait to find out what adventures will come my way in the next 7 days. If something happens to me, tell my family I love them.
Day 3, 14 Sep 08, 03:17z (01:17 local)
"Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down." I'm not sure of the relevance of that song lyric is right now, but it is the song I'm listening to as I start this entry. It's also coincidence the airplane is over the middle of the North Atlantic. Even before the door closed on Virgin flight 46, tail G-VFAB, it was already 3 times better than any other flight I've been on. The flight attendants are the most professional and the friendliest I've ever experienced. We took a long taxi departing JFK, but that's not Virgin's fault. Shortly after liftoff from runway 22R, the FAs pass out complimentary headphones as well as a comfort bag complete with eyeshades, socks, a toothbrush, paste, and a pen. Dinner was wonderful -- we had a choice of beef stew and mashed potatoes or chicken and rice. I elected the chicken and rice and it was quite delicious. Along with the entrée came a salad, cheese and crackers, a dinner roll, and a desert that I couldn't identify but was delicious anyways. As a bonus, dinner came with a glass of wine, which hit the spot. I picked a good flight to non-rev on, as it was only about 65% full by a rough guess, and I had a whole row to myself. One of the FAs offered me the exit row, but I politely declined since it was an aisle seat with someone already occupying the window seat. The B744 is a majestic aircraft indeed; the ride has been very smooth so far, and my fellow passengers have been very courteous. Going back to the song lyric, the IFE is incredible. There is a remote control in the armrest which gives you access to all the entertainment one could want. Overall, there were about 40 movies, 70 television shows, about 75 albums (not songs, entire albums), about a dozen games, and a flight tracker to let you know where you were at. I started off with a game of backgammon, then watched "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story" (unedited, BTW), and now I just turned on Simon and Garfunkel. There's still a few hours to go -- I may watch another movie, or a TV show, and maybe another song or two. This is how flying is meant to be. Back to the IFE.
Day 3, 14 Sep 08, 12:53z (13:53 local)
I have officially made it to England; my European cherry has been popped. But certainly not without a little drama. First off, our flight had about 15 minutes of airborne holding into London Heathrow due to excessive volume and a runway switch. I recall counting at least 3 donuts. The wings on that 747 look even more amazing when the plane is banked at 30 degrees. Fortunately, the fuel was in plentiful supply and we made a safe landing on 09L. The line in customs was extremely long; I ended up waiting about 45 minutes to get processed. The subway ride over, though long, was uneventful. I must say though that London has the cleanest, nicest subways of all that I have been on. And yes, New Jersey's trains still suck. Finding my hostel, however, is a whole other story. I was going off directions I found on the internet. They made it sound like a very easy 10 minute walk from the subway station. When I exited the station, however, I discovered a veritable orgy of streets, with no two going in the same direction and none of them well marked. I made about 3 trips around the neighborhood and required the assistance of two people before finding my place to stay. As I write this, I have about 20 minutes before I can officially check in, but at least I could keep my roller board there in the meantime. I think I'm going to enjoy it here, but I'm withholding judgement until I get some sleep. I'm pooped.
Day 3, 14 Sep 08, 19:54z (20:54 local)
Much more refreshed after a 5 hour nap. A little about the Click Hostel that I'm staying at. It was a lot larger than I had imagined it to be. It was an old courthouse that was converted to be a hostel, with each room being an old office, I imagine. I'm in a room about 15 x 18 feet, with 5 bunk beds in it. I think 4 people are here tonight; what a gigantic ball of chaos this room must be if it's full. I just did an email check, and their internet room was the actual courtroom. Someone had already called dibs on the magistrate's chair. I think I sat where the prosecutors would sit. Even though I feel well up for going out tonight, I don't feel comfortable enough yet with the neighborhood to go out. I haven't even gotten a feel for hostel etiquette yet. Sharing the room with me are a couple of beautiful young girls from Austria. I like listening to them talk. I may chat it up with them a little more. I think tomorrow I will hit up Piccadilly Circus, and see what there is to do. Cheers!
Day 4, 15 Sep 08, 09:26z (10:26 local)
I decided to head to Piccadilly Circus this morning. It looked like there was plenty to see and do, at least, according to the map. I saw a couple of casinos on the map and I'm curious to see how English gambling standards compared to Vegas' standards. Just as an FYI, I took the Piccadilly subway line to get here, and one of the ends of the line is Cockfosters. Nothing brightens up your morning like hearing "Cockfosters" at every stop. I learned two things this morning at breakfast: 1. "Free breakfast" is a very loose term. All that was offered was cereal, toast, and coffee. 2. I think I am the only American checked into this joint. After becoming acquainted with the two Austrian girls, an English fellow joined us. When I woke up, there was another fellow of whom I haven't had a chance to meet yet. At breakfast, I sat with a young couple from Italy, who didn't speak any English -- slightly awkward. But so far, I have not seen anyone at the hostel out of an estimated 150 guests that I would guess to be an American. I had expected to meet people from all over the world; I just didn't expect to be the sole USA representative. Oh well, I'm off for some adventure.
Day 5, 16 Sep 08, 11:26z (12:26 local)
I won't have time to write about all I've done in the last 30 hours; I've been very busy indeed. Currently, I'm waiting for the 13:00 walking tour entitled "Cool Britannia," a walk about Soho and the supposed chic sites of the city. This morning I did a walking tour featuring the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. We weren't able to see it all, but we did manage to get a good sampling of the pageantry of the experience. And yes, I did get my picture taken with a bobby. It's all a part of this "Original Tour Company of London." Yesterday, I paid 22 pounds and I got a bus tour of the whole city, a walking tour of the Jack the Ripper murder sites, and the two walking tours of today. Those have all been excellent tours with very knowledgeable guides. I'm very excited to go on this Soho tour. Last night, I went to a bar across the street from my hostel. I had one of each type of beer they had that I couldn't find in America. They had on a football match between the Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Villa. Aston Villa won 2-1. Tonight, there's a pub hop tour downtown that I intend to be a part of. I think tomorrow I will head to Amsterdam. I may go in the afternoon, spend all day Thursday and the night, and fly back to the US on Friday. I want to watch the Ryder Cup on Saturday (which is being way more promoted over here than back in the States). I will write more details later tonight when I get a chance. Cheers!
Day 6, 17 Sep 08, 09:58z (10:58 local)
I'm on board a train bound for London Stansted Airport. I have booked myself full fare, positive space to Prague on EasyJet. I haven't done that in over four years. Why Prague? Beata emailed me back last night and welcomed me down. I went ahead and booked the flight since I found a killer deal on EasyJet. She gave me a phone number to contact her with. I tried last night and there was no answer and she apparently does not have a voice mail of any kind. Fantastic. I will try again at Stansted and I hope to hell she answers. Otherwise, try again in Prague. If no answer, I don't know what the hell I'm going to do. I emailed my flight info to her last night, so I hope she gets it. About a month ago, my goal was to say under a $500 budget. Last week, I adjusted that to $1000. I don't care about a budget now, I only hope to be able to meet up with Beata, have a good time, and then on Friday morning, figure out the least expensive way to get from Prague to Frankfurt. The last three days in London have been a wonderful bliss. Yesterday afternoon was a fantastic tour. Our guide, Malcolm, was the same fellow who administered the Buckingham Palace tour. Our group was small -- it was myself and a young married couple from Canada. The tour took us to sites frequented by some of the most famous people in rock n' roll. We saw Paul McCartney's office, a pub called "The Ship" where many bands had played early in their careers. Also, we toured some of the more famous shops of Soho, including the one the Queen bought from the most. Because our group was small, we were able to go inside and look around where others may not have been able to. I saw a ton of near stuff that I will never be able to afford. After our tour, I stopped at Hanley's, the largest toy store in London. While it was very neat to look at, it also reminded me that I'm not a kid anymore. After that, I went to the G Casino, just to see how they compare to Vegas. I played 20 pounds worth of blackjack at 5 pounds a hand. It was very clean inside, very nice, but small. There were only 4 tables -- 2 blackjack and 2 roulette, with a handful of slot machines. Two differences in Vegas rules and English rules. First one was dealer must stay on all 17s (I actually won about three hands because of this). The other rule concerned me: the dealer did not draw his hole card until after all players played their hand. I don't like that because it screws up the odds too much. I shant complain too much, as I lasted 30 minutes and won 5 pounds. That night, I went on a pub crawl. I will write on this when I get on the plane, as we are about 5 minutes away from the airport. Cheers!
Day 6, 17 Sep 08, 13:50z (15:50 local)
I am a nervous wreck right now, for two reasons. 1. This is my first flight not involving an American city. 2. I have still not managed to get a hold of Beata. I guess I'm so nervous because I don't have a plan B in place. I don't even have an idea of what plan B would be. So I might as well talk about the flight I'm on. It's EasyJet 3067 from STN (London Stansted) to PRG (Prague [Hope it's the right one in Prague] Airport) on an A319, tail G-EZEO. The flight should be about 1:30 in air. EasyJet does not have assigned seating, and while I might have drawn ire from fellow passengers for sneaking towards the front of the line (though no once called me out on it), I was able to get an exit row window seat -- score! I was not impressed with Stansted Airport. It was very modern looking, and aesthetically nice, but there are a ton of design flaws. First, there are no maps/guides to tell you what your eating/shopping options are, or where anything is for that matter. Its next flaw -- when you go to your gate, you are stuck there. There was a train to take you from the main building to each pier of gates, and once off the train, only an escalator is available to go up to the level the gates were at, meaning you can't get back down. The arriving passengers enter the pier the level below the departures, and I don't know how a connection could be made if one needs to. Oh, and did I mention that it is waaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyyyyyyy the hell out of town? It took 50 minutes from Liverpool station in northeast London to go further northeast to the airport, with only 2 stops!
Last night, I participated in a pub crawl which was very interesting. We ended up going to 5 bars. The first one we started at was the Langley. It was nice and clean, but the service was terrible. I stood at the bar for 10 minutes before I could get the bartenders' attention (there were 3 working the bar). I tried to order food, only to be shuffled around to different rooms and ultimately ignored. Next, we went to Belushi's. A little better service, but it was cramped and difficult to find a place to sit or stand. Next was the Roadhouse -- this was the best bar by far. It had the best service, the best prices, and our group had the most fun there. I think I had about 3 Long Island Iced teas while I was there. Fourth was a Japanese themed place where I can't remember the name (I later looked at pictures and saw it was The Exchange Club). I do recall drinking a tall glass of Kieran Ichiban beer. Finally, we went to some nightclub. I was so drunk at that point, I had no idea what the name was or where it was at (again, after looking at the photos it was the Zoo Bar). I do remember that I hated it and left within 10 minutes. I still don't remember how I managed to make it back to the hostel safely and in one piece. But overall, it was fun, had a good group of people to drink with; most of them were from Aus/NZ. Not a bad deal, either -- it was 12 pounds for the tour which included 3 free drinks, no cover at any place, and discounts on some of the drinks inside. I ended up drinking way more than I had intended to, but oh well, I had fun, and I didn't have to drive, most importantly.
In the grand scheme of it all, I had a blast in London. I might have had more fun if I had someone to go with me, but I don't know if I would have accomplished s much. We're about 30 minutes from Prague. I really hope this works out. Cheers!
Day 6, 17 Sep 08, 20:41z (22:41z local)
I made a mistake coming to Prague. Nothing to do with the town or the people here, its just that I should have never come on such short notice. I am overwhelmed by the experience, and frustrated by my lack of preparedness. I still couldn't get a hold of Beata, and I'm thinking about forgetting meeting up with her and catching a train to Frankfurt in the morning. The fun and excitement I had in London has drained me of all the energy and patience I needed for Prague. And yes, I'm a little homesick. I'm really trying to keep a positive, open mind. But this afternoon, after wandering around Prague Airport for two hours like Tom Hanks in "The Terminal," I just couldn't do it anymore. On a bright note, I ate at the Pilsner Urquell Restaurant next to my hostel tonight and had a great meal. I would love to come back here again someday and give it a more honest chance. But right now, my mindset is 100% "Let's find a way home." Cheers.
Day 7, 18 Sep 08, 11:36z (13:36 local)
I learned one critical thing this morning in Prague: don't smoke in the train station. A young man near me was smoking, and two police officers came over to harass him. For about three minutes, the cops were verbally lashing at him, asking for his passport at one point. I didn't want to stare, for fear they might come over and start giving me the business. Therefore, I wasn't sure if this guy had to bribe the police to shut them up or not. I'm now on board a train bound for Frankfurt. The Czech Republic is very beautiful -- tall, rolling hills that are very lush with greenery. I tried to get some pictures of the countryside, but I'm a little slow with the camera. Train service is more expensive than I thought. I paid over 2300 CZA (pronounced "Khrones," about $150 American) for a one-way ticket. That's almost as much as I paid for my EasyJet flight from STN to PRG.
Day 7, 18 Sep 08, 16:36z (18:36 local)
After a train change at Dresden, Germany, I boarded a much nicer train run by DeutscheBahn, or DB for short. The first hour of the new train went quite smooth, but after the first stop, Leipzig, I got kicked out of my seat. Apparently it was reserved, although there was absolutely nothing I could see that would tell me that. I changed cars and saw two people sitting in the midpoint between two cars who told me that all open seats were taken. Wonderful. For the next hour, I had to stand in the car connection area. A few staff members walked past me; none of them seemed interested in helping me find a seat. Finally, at the next stop, I noticed a few people getting off. I moved quickly into the next car, and after a couple of tries, I finally got a seat. My ass won't be getting up until Frankfurt. And that sucks only because I need to sue the restroom, and I estimate another 2:25 until Frankfurt. Still not sure what I'm going to do about lodging in Frankfurt. I checked the internet before I left Prague, and most of the hotels were in the $350 to $400 range. I ain't paying that much. I guess what I will do is ask around for a cheaper hotel, and if not, head to FRA airport and find a nice, quiet, cozy little spot for the night. There are quite a few flight options back to the US out of FRA. Right now, I'm targeting the 11:45 departure to CLT on US, which gets in around 15:30 local. I think the customs will be the quickest and easiest there. Cheers.
Day 8, 19 Sep 08, 08:14z (10:14 local)
I think this is the first and last time I will travel to Frankfurt. Unlike Prague, where I saw potential for fun and beauty, Frankfurt has been disappointing on every level. First, about the train station. They are very steadfast on using the Euro. Each time I tried to use my Visa cards, I was turned down. Other currencies (I had a ton of leftover Khrones) would also not be accepted. It was the Euro or nothing. So that was a waste of $5 ATM fee my bank charged to pull out 20 Euro (which was more than I needed). Next -- no damn toilets. I walked about 5 times around that joint with not 1 toilet to be found. The only bright spot was the very delicious Binder beer that I had 3 pints of before boarding the train to the airport. That beer is brewed only in Frankfurt and isn't found anywhere else. The airport is also a massive disappointment, and I mean massive. First, since I decided to sleep at the airport, finding a spot to sleep was really hard. Not 1 damn square inch of carpeting to be found; it was cold tile everywhere. I joined a group of people in some chairs trying to do the same thing I was. After about 2-3 hours of intermittent 10 minute naps, I had enough and went downstairs to the baggage claim. Easy does it -- found a bench with no armrests that I could lie down on plus it was quiet. I was able to sleep until about 6 a.m., when the first batch of arrivals showed up. I should have been able to just go right upstairs and get in the check in line, right? NO! I had to go through customs, or at least some form of it, because not everyone was getting checked. Luckily, I was part of the 2 out of 3 people that avoided the questioning and bag search. I changed clothes, freshened up as best as I could, got my boarding pass for the 11:45 US Airways flight to CLT (Charlotte, NC); good to go. Or so I thought. I got in line for what I thought was security, but it wasn't. It was German customs again, to I guess, clear me to leave the country? After that 30 minute charade, I made my way to the gate. Keep in mind, when I'm at an airport waiting on a flight, I love to look at the planes and ground people doing their thing and bouncing around from terminal to terminal to see what I can see. This is why I hate FRA airport. The hallway to gate C4 was narrow, dark, with no windows at all. I reached my gate to discover that each gate has its own security checkpoint (How F'n stupid is that?). Beyond that was a small, 12 seat waiting area. There is a window, but the jetways block the view. F'n brilliant design. The US gate setup is even more confounding. Behind the gate counter is a small room not nearly large enough for the 300 people that my aircraft, an A330, can carry. After a 30 minute wait, they make you form two lines, one for passengers originating in Frankfurt and the other for inbound connections. The originating passengers had their tickets torn (1:30 minutes before departure, keep in mind), and were allowed access into this small room to wait for boarding the plane. Whoever ran the other line must have sucked at it, because two thirds of the people he handled were sent to talk to another gate agent for assistance. Meanwhile, I'm standby, so I have to watch this chaos from the sidelines, trying to figure out if any of this makes sense. I'm trying to stay positive for the flight, but it's hard knowing 1. This airport sucks something awful, and 2. I know US Airways will not have half as good of a flight experience as Virgin. I'll do one last entry towards the end of the flight, and I will do my best to make it a positive summation of the trip. Cheers.
Day 8, 19 Sep 08, 22:38z (18:38 local)
I'm in much better spirits, having been granted the jumpseat on oversold US Airways flight 656 from CLT-PHX, on aircraft N656AW (purely coincidence). Non-reving would have been difficult, and if I didn't jumpseat, the odds would have been very good I might have had to spend another night sleeping in an airport somewhere. No thanks, I'll be very happy to sleep in my own bed tonight. The flight from FRA to CLT was actually better than I thought it would be service wise, but not even close to the standard set by Virgin. The IFE was okay, similar to Virgin in that there was a seat back monitor with a remote control built into the armrest, but there weren't as many options. Virgin had about 40 movies to choose from; US had only 7. Virgin had about 35 TV shows, US had about 10. US had a fair amount of music albums, but not as much or not as good as what Virgin offered. And US did not have the games or the flight tracker (which would have been even cooler on a 9.5 hour flight). I ended up watching 2 TV shows, the movie "21" about the MIT students who counted cards in blackjack. Pretty good movie overall, but didn't come across as very realistic. I also listened to quite a bit of music. The food was just okay. On the first meal, we had a choice of chicken or pasta; I elected to have the chicken. It was decent, but nothing to rave over. Overall, airline food gets a bad rap, but given the conditions, both US and Virgin had good meals. About 2 hours out of CLT, we were given a toasted turkey sandwich, which was quite delicious. There was one thing US did beat Virgin on -- drink service. Although alcohol was the usual $7, the FAs came by with the drink cart about every hour, whereas on Virgin, they only served drinks 3 times total throughout the flight. I don't know if there will be a spare first class meal leftover for me or not. Last time I did a long haul jumpseat on mainline (PHL-PHX on East metal), they gave me a snack box. Oh well, I don't care at this point. I'm three hours from home, where I can shower, change clothes, relax, and get a great night's sleep. Plus, I'll get to watch the Ryder Cup tomorrow, go USA!
Overall, I would have to say this is one of the better experiences in my life, even if the trip turned a little sour in Prague. I got a nice sample of European culture, and I'm hungry for more. I can't wait to do this again, and hopefully, the economy will improve so that the exchange rates don't bite me in the butt the way they did on this trip. But I'm glad I went, I'm glad I wrote a journal about it so I can remember the details, and I hope to be a better person for this experience. Cheers!
P.S. Here are the planes I few on my trip (sorry, I never got a look at the tail number of my US A330, so I don't know which plane that was):
Photo © Josh Akbar
Photo © Carlos Borda
Photo © Petr Popelar
Photo © Trent R Sellers
Photo © Blake Mallery