I have procrastinated publishing these reports for way too long now but finally, almost a year after I first embarked on what was the biggest step of my life so far, I'm ready to share the first installments of this series with you.
Last summer, I began my participation in an almost year-long student exchange program my home university (Heidelberg University) maintains with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The preparation for that trip began as early as fall of 2017 and after a few weeks of waiting I finally got the good news and from there onward began the long search for all things needed - housing, visa, an approved academic plan and of course, flights.
Classes at UNC started on August 21st, but since my last exams in Germany wouldn't be over until the first week of August I decided to fly some time between the 10th and 17th. I ended up booking the tickets in mid-April, as I made a round-trip itinerary that would allow me to return to Germany over Christmas break. I had played around with various FRA-???-RDU routings but all the ones I could find were at least 900€ r/t.
Then one day I realized that for my dates (outbound mid-August, inbound right before Christmas) Star Alliance roundtrips to New York were around 250€ cheaper than this. A quick further search revealed that, especially in summer, there were one-way flights between LGA and RDU for barely 70€, so I decided to split up the bookings.
This would further give me the advantage of spending a night in New York City on the way out to RDU and possibly even longer on the way home.
Thus, what I ended up booking was the following:
FRA-ZRH-EWR on an LH A320 and a UA B764, with a 13:00 arrival into Newark
and LGA-RDU on a DL E170 (initially loaded) with a noon departure the following day. This gave me almost a full day in NYC and I was looking forward to two new types, especially the rather elusive 767-400.
I ended up getting an e-mail by Delta a few weeks later informing me of a schedule change - the flight to RDU would now be operated by an Endeavor CRJ9 instead of the Republic E170.
Fast forward 4 months and after an - unnecessarily - last-minute visa approval the day of my departure had come. The night before I had some friends and family members over for a little cook out, but all of them ended up leaving rather early, because I too had to the next morning: My flight to Zurich would leave Frankfurt at 6:40 in the morning (being only the 12th overall scheduled departure of the day IINM) and I live about a 50-60 minutes' drive from FRA. So I went to bed at 22:30 and set an alarm to 3:40. I fell asleep surprisingly well and awoke 5 minutes before my alarm went off.
My parents and siblings got up with me bidding me farewell and my dad drove me to the airport where we arrived in the parking lot shortly before 5 in the morning.
A quick walk into Terminal 1 later and I dropped off my baggage, said a final goodbye to my dad and made my way to the security checkpoint - I was on my own now!
Frankfurt's famous departure board at just past 5 in the morning
While not all of them, a good number of shops was already open so I got myself a bottle of water and a coffee (I couldn't take in any food yet) and went for a little stroll along concourse A, eventually settling down at my gate (A16).
Right after security, and not a soul around
An A321 to TXL at the neighboring gate
My plane D-AIUN and another sharklet-fitted A320 parked next to it
Recently arrived heavies at concourse Z
Watching the sun slowly rise had a calming effect and all doubts and anxiety I might have had about the upcoming journey were quickly replaced by giddy anticipation and a general feeling of happiness that what I'd been working towards for so long was finally coming true.
It was thus even more befitting that boarding started perfectly on time at 6:15 and was executed swiftly - no surprise there, 90% of the passengers looked like serious frequent flyers and the overall load was probably around 65%.
Lufthansa flight LH1182
Frankfurt FRA - Zürich ZRH
August 15th, 2018
STD - STA || 6:40 - 7:35
ATD - ATA || 6:58 - 7:28
Airbus A320-214(SL), D-AIUN (3.5 years at time of flight)
I stuck around in the seating area for a while, since many of those waiting had elite status anyway and were called early, before making my way down the jetbridge. Upon entering the cabin I was greeted by the F/As who also handed out little almond cakes for Economy class passengers, due to the short flying time the food service was already done on the ground. I was delighted to find out that I had no seatmates in row 22 and even more so about the fact that it stayed that way once the "boarding completed" announcement sounded trough the cabin.
Boarding only took 20 minutes and another 10 minutes later, at 6:45 we pushed back. After a manual safety demonstration was executed we made our way to runway 18 at 6:51 and after a swift taxi we lifted off without any waiting time, leaving FRA behind at 6:58.
View of D-AIUN from the jetbridge
The modern cabin of this A320
and taxiing out in beautiful morning light
Turning onto the active
Goodbye, Germany! See you in 4 months!
After we had reached our low cruise altitude (If i recall correctly, maybe FL240) the flight attendants came through offering drinks and briefly later to pick up the trash. We maintained that cruise altitude for maybe 5 minutes, the rest was climb out of FRA and approach into ZRH. I spent my time listening to music and watching the scenery, which became especially pretty on approach when the clouds cleared up. So before long, we were already on finals for Zürich and briefly later made a smooth landing on runway 14 at 7:28, followed by a quick taxi straight over the crosswind runway to our parking position at concourse A.
Already on approach again
Pretty scenery in the morning light
We must have been coming in pretty fast because those speed brakes stayed up forever
Holding short for a departing
Parked next to an LHG friend
Due to our early arrival I was in no hurry to leave the plane, so I deboarded among the last passengers and then leisurely strolled to ZRH's "Airside plaza". After scanning my tickets for a free wifi code and realizing that most of the stores there would be outside of my budget I decided that the best thing would be to already take the underground train to the intercontinental concourse E. This part of the airport was a pleasant place to spend the remaining hour until boarding at, as it had an open air spotting terrace which was a real treat given the beautiful weather.
Before I headed up to the spotters terrace I passed my departure gate's desk where they just made a paging call for all connecting passengers. As I was among them I walked over to the guy manning the desk and after showing him my self-checkin boarding passes from FRA, he asked me a "lite" version of the security questions and handed me out an actual, UA-stock boarding pass for the flight to EWR which I gladly took.
Station of the connector train, after passing passport control
A pretty day on the spotting terrace
Eventually, about 15 minutes before the scheduled boarding time of 9:20, I made my way back inside and towards gate E43 were people already started lining up. Since boarding started a little later I bought a sandwich (at expectably exorbitant prices, but by now, I was hungry) and waited for the call.
The gate attendants began boarding the flight just barely behind schedule at around 9:30 and even though I was in group 3 and towards the end of the line I was in my seat at 10 sharp, another pretty efficient boarding process!
First glimpse of today's pretty ride
The line for boarding
About to board this 767
United Airlines flight UA135
Zürich ZRH - Newark EWR
August 15th, 2018
STD - STA || 10:10 - 13:05
ATD - ATA || 10:29 - 12:44
Boeing 767-424ER, N76064 (16.5 years at time of flight)
Upon entering the plane through the L2 door I was greeted by an impressively modern looking cabin. Even though the plane already had a few years under its belt, the seats and IFE screens made the interior seem pretty much brand new - enjoyable first impression!
I settled into my seat in row 38 and was shortly later accompanied by a seatmate in the aisle seat. Overall I would estimate the load factor in economy at around 98%.
View from 38A, already after pushback
Boarding was completed just minutes after I got on board and we were pushed back at exactly the scheduled departure time of 10:10. While the engines came to life, the safety video was played over the individual screens and 5 minutes later we began our taxi out. After holding short for a Swiss A330 (headed for JFK, I think) it was our turn and at 10:29 we took off from runway 16.
After liftoff we performed a fun departure pattern where we turned east at first before completing an almost 270° left hand turn around ZRH to get on track for our transatlantic journey.
Climbout over the Swiss lakes and along the Alps was scenic and we had good weather all the way across France right until we left European mainland behind somewhere over Brittany. Our transatlantic routing was pretty far south, so we didn't see any land until the North American East Coast.
Already on the active, followed by this Air Canada 77W to Toronto
Circling around the airport - a little game: Can you spot the AC flight behind us having lifted off in the second picture?
Zürich and its homonymous lake
Another beautiful lake and the Alps start making an appearance
Somewhere above central France
This was somewhere to the east off the coast of Nova Scotia already: I just casually looked out of the window when I saw this Air France 777 below us (My guess would be not more than 3000 feet below) - it stuck around for a while but ended up overtaking us and crossing below, heading westward at a sharper course than ours.
I spent most of the overwater time perusing the IFE which featured a selection of over 100 movies and more TV show episodes. I watched various of those as well as two movies - Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, MO (a great one) and of course since it was available, the all-time classic in obscene youth humor: Superbad.
Over the course of the flight we were served 4 rounds of food - a bag of small breadsticks as a snack post-departure, then a fairly typical chicken or pasta lunch around 2.5 hours into the flight (I had the pasta, it wasn't bad but nothing spectacular either), a little tub of ice cream midway through the journey (really tasty!) and a hot pretzel roll with cheese and ham around 90 minutes before landing. In addition to these runs, the flight attendants did a couple of hydration runs, so I really can't complain about the service. On this flight the crew was pretty young on average and all of them quite friendly.
Cabin view about halfway into the flight
Almost an hour before our estimated landing time, just north of Cape Cod we left our course, turning right (heading straight inland over Massachusetts) and already began descending from our altitude of 36000 feet. With still a solid 35 minutes to go we leveled off at around 13/14000 feet and began the approach pattern by flying in parallel to the Long Island sound (but farther inland) before turning south over SWF airport (Newburgh) and continuing with the final approach eventually bringing us in from the north.
Cape Cod, feat. some beautiful cloud formations and the gorgeous wing
Landfall over Massachusetts, close to Boston
MetLife stadium - home of the New York Jets and New York Giants
Skyline views as we're already on finals
When crossing the scattered clouds we hit some bumps and one of them felt like a prolonged drop, inducing a number of screams in the cabin.
The thing that I found more worrying though was the landing:
We had already overflown the piano keys and kept floating down above the runway for another 15-20 seconds at least. Just as I was already expecting a go-around the Captain firmly planted us down on runway 22L at 12:44 local. This was followed by an intense breaking performance pulling you from your seat - much needed as we'd see, because we rolled off at the very last possible point. Already past the arrows for the displaced threshold at 4R and just short of the yellow chevrons - if we had taken a few hundred feet more to get down we might have rolled a bit too far.
This way though we made a regular taxi to our gate in Terminal C where we arrived at our gate a few minutes later and by the scheduled arrival time I had already deboarded.
Immigration however took a while - although the passengers from flight 135 were the only ones present in the large hall when I got there, only 2 counters were open for non-citizens. After a while, a 3rd one opened but I nonetheless I waited a solid 40 minutes to pass immigration.
Once through, the luggage was luckily already waiting for me at the belt and not getting checked by customs, I was on the Air Train within 10 minutes.
View back towards the terminals
I took the Air Train to the Newark Airport Train station from where I caught an NJ Transit train to Penn Station. I think it's quite a convenient option, even though I had just missed a train I didn't even have to wait 5 minutes for the next one and the fare was decent too given that I made it to Midtown Manhattan in 25 minutes.
Waiting for the train
The transfer into New York was pretty convenient and even though my hostel was in Long Island City, Queens I checked in there less than an hour after leaving EWR. I took the rest of the afternoon to walk around Manhattan, see some of the famous sites around Midtown and get some food. After all, I wanted to make the most of mylayover. It also helped me get over my jet lag because I forced myself to stay out until 21:30, so by the time I got back into my hostel room I had been awake for 24 hours straight and just fell asleep.
View of Manhattan from Long Island City, a few blocks from my hostel
I managed to sleep until shortly after 6:15 the next morning and stayed in the bed for a bit longer so I wouldn't wake up the others in the room too early.
Around 7 I finally decided to venture out, got some breakfast and discovered the part of Long Island City in which the hostel was located.
The morning bustle at the elevated multi-level Queensboro Plaza subway station right outside the hostel
Check-out was at 10:00 but I ended up leaving a bit before that and made my way to LGA airport using the E subway and the LaGuardia Link bus from Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Ave station, both worked pretty well so I got to the construction side that is Terminal C curbside shortly before 10:30. I went straight to the check-in machine to get my boarding pass and add my bag (I had booked basic economy for this flight) and during the check-in process I was asked whether I'd be willing to volunteer for a later flight and if so, for 100, 200, 300, 400 or 500 dollars.
At that point I thought this was just a purely hypothetical question but I wasn't exactly averse to doing it, so I tapped the 400 dollar button (Didn't want to take the highest offer because 400$ would be pretty great but I feared that going with the highest offer would minimize my chances).
With that done I went to give up my suitcase and then lined up for the security check which took a while to wait but I eventually got airside with over an hour to spare, so I leisurely strolled to the gate. Minutes later, my name was called out over the gate announcement system so I went over to the desk where the attendant asked me "You said you would be willing to take a later flight for a $400 compensation, is that correct?" After I confirmed that, she explained that the flight was indeed overbooked and that they could get me on the next flight leaving just 2 hours later if I still wanted to.
My (not actually) ride to RDU
I immediately took the offer, figuring I could make good use of the flight credit, and once boarding for my original flight (DL5385) was completed, the agent assigned me a seat (I asked for a window seat and got one, even better because my basic economy fare wouldn't have included seat assignments) and gave me the voucher code.
I really felt like I had made a great deal, because at that point it was just another 90 minutes until the next flight (now DL3290) would begin boarding, so after a little snack I made my way to the newly announced gate - a dinky looking ground-level gate in a crowded area for bus gates (didn't even know these existed at LGA).
Once there however, trouble began: At first a delay of 15 minutes was announced, which quickly extended to 30 minutes (because of the late arrival of the inbound aircraft). Boarding ended up beginning 35 minutes behind schedule and we were driven out into the burning heat of the LGA tarmac, where we boarded an Endeavor Air CRJ-900 operating for Delta Connection, N306PQ.
The remote stands where Delta apparently boards exclusively DL connection CRJs
After settling into my seat 10A, I watched as the boarding process ended quickly, since everyone had already been there given the delay. Still, the door of the plane wasn't closed and instead there was a constant stream of ground personnel entering and leaving the plane. After about 15 minutes the captain came out of the cockpit and started explaining that the plane had a problem with its rudder and they had been troubleshooting it for a while. Apparently now they needed a part which, he assured, was stored "here in New York at the airport", so it should be brought around and fixed in another half an hour.
People were already getting pretty upset at that point, but at least we had a reason and a new time now... right?
Around 35 minutes after said 30 minute announcement the captain came out again, this time looking a bit awkward: "Okay folks, there was a problem with our inventory list and the part we thought was at LaGuardia is actually over at Kennedy and with rush hour now we won't be getting it here in the foreseeable future" WHAT?!?!
Some people started letting out that unmistakable kind of nervous laugh, but the captain continued to announce that they were flying in a replacement aircraft right now and we should be able to leave in about an hour (around 17:00). So we left the plane again, were bussed back to the sketchy gate areas and then walked over to C21 from where our flight was supposed to leave now. Delta handed out some small water bottles and after a while another CR9 ended up pulling into the gate.
My 3rd possible and now actual plane for the day - N137EV
Boarding began as soon as the aircraft was ready at around 16:40 and concluded within 10 minutes, allowing us to finally push back at 17:00 and begin the taxi out for departure. I had feared that there would be a long line and, being a hot and humid day, that might end up in some thunderstorm, delaying the flight even further but none of that turned out to be true.
The line was rather short and at 17:14 we finally got underway, lifting off from runway 31 before circling around the northern end of Manhattan and setting course for the south.
Our routing followed the coast for most of the flight, roughly paralleling the shoreline of New Jersey and the Delmarva Peninsula before turning inland over the southern Chesapeake bay.
First in line now
A very hot, humid, and hazy summer day in NY
Somewhere over Virginia already, it was hazy pretty much the entire flight
The cabin of this Delta Connection CRJ-900
The onboard service consisted of a run of drinks and a bag of peanuts which while by no means impressive was definitely enough for the stage length.
Although blocked at 2 hours, our flight left cruising altitude pretty soon again and we made a pretty straightforward arrival into RDU, where we touched down on runway 23R at 18:22 local time (1hr50 arrival delay vs. 2hr45 departure delay!). A brief taxi ensued and we finally reached the gate.
Finally on approach and about to reach my new home
After deboarding I realized that although Delta seriously screwed up on the second flight, there was another perk (on top of the $400) of volunteering - since it was loaded onto my original flight, my suitcase was already waiting for me when the baggage carousel hadn't even started delivery yet!! That way, I was in the parking garage within minutes of getting off the plane and I got to meet the wonderful people that would be my house mates for the coming year.
So, after all, I will always hold this trip in a special memory given its significance for my life - but how would I rate the experience? #
LH did all you would expect them to - a decent product, perfectly on time. Icing on the cake was the new airplane and the fact that I had a full row to myself.
UA honestly doesn't deserve its bad rap from what I observed - the cabin of that 764 was brand new, flight was on time, crew was really friendly and while the food was nothing special they did a great job at keeping you hydrated. Granted, this was my first and so far only long-haul with them (more on that in the final remarks below).
DL, or rather Endeavor Air gave off the impression that their LGA operation is a hot mess on that second flight but other than that I can't complain. In a retrospect they saved me big bucks and their inflight service and the hard product was perfectly adequate so my anger about getting to RDU 4 hours later than planned is definitely not too big.
Stay tuned as I'll try to get my act together and upload the reports of my return home for Christmas (on an LH B748), the flight back for the second semester and some domestic travels as well as the final return in the hopefully not so far future.