FR, US, UA, LH - My first visit to the US (with some pics)
Intro and Background
Welcome to my trip report. It’s the story of my trip, with my best mate ‘M’ (mate, as in friend!) to the US. I’ll try and make it as much about the travel/flying experience as possible, though I will include some details and photos of the cities visited, as well as favourite dining and drinking experiences. Forgive the verbose nature of the TR in places, its written as a personal account as much as an FT Trip Report! Please comment and ask any questions – I’d be delighted to answer!
A little about me- I’m 27, married, from a small town in northern Wales, and am a regular flyer within Europe, but I’d never flown long-haul prior to this trip. I’m a huge football (that’s soccer!) fan, and following the Welsh national team has led me to cities and nations that I would otherwise probably never visit – Podgorica anyone??
I also love flying, which is kinda strange I guess, since most of my flights are on low-cost carriers – mostly Easyjet and Ryanair; even to holiday destinations such as the Canaries etc, these two appear to be getting ever more dominant. Since my first flight when I was 8 years old, airports have fascinated me – so many people going to so many destinations all for different reasons. At one time I actually thought it would be cool to be part of all that and work in an airport, but it was never a career path I considered too seriously as I got older.
But I digress!! The trip was a long time in the making. M and I had both taken out BMI credit cards a year or two ago, taking advantage of the bonus sign-up offers, with the intention of getting some reasonable flights to follow our football team. However, we soon realised that due to taxes etc ex-UK, the cost of using the miles within Europe usually offered little or no saving against EZY etc. Also, the majority of useful flights went from LHR, and the connection cost in miles to start a trip from MAN (our local airport (I say local, it’s a 100 miles away!)) meant that it was hardly worth the hassle when compared to a cheap flight direct from LPL or MAN.
So the miles went unused, and by the start of 2012, thanks to credit card spend, I had around 38,000 BMI miles, while M had around 26,000. A little reading on the BMI forum on FT (thanks everyone!!) educated me that we not only had enough miles to do a cash+miles redemption to the Americas, we could also do a stopover in each direction, and pooling our miles, one direction (not the annoying little blokes with the silly haircuts!) could be done in Business class. We decided that we would go towards the end of May, taking advantage of two extra free days leave thanks to the Queen’s Jubilee (two birds, one stone comes to mind – being out of the country for the Jubilee was fine by me as I’m not exactly what you would call a Royalist!!)
Plan A was to try and do both North and South America, and making a pilgrimage to the Welsh colony in Patagonia. However, there’s no Star Alliance presence in Argentina beyond Buenos Aires, and internal flights were prohibitively expensive to Puerto Madryn and Trelew airports in Patagonia. If you haven’t heard of it, that part of the world is pretty special to most Welsh people – thousands left Wales in the 19th Century to look for a better, fairer life, and set up a colony in Patagonia’s Chubut Valley. Today, while their descendants are fiercely patriotic Argentines, they retain their Welsh heritage, and there are several thousand who are fluent in Welsh along with Spanish. As I say, that is a pilgrimage that I will make one day, but not this year!
In February or thereabouts though, there were rumours that the Wales football team might be making and end of season trip to the US, to face Mexico in New York. This was soon confirmed, and Plan B was soon set in motion – we would tour a few cities in the USA, making sure that we were in New York by May 27th for the Wales game!
I spent the next few weeks completely neglecting my poor wife, trawling through various booking systems trying to find the best availability to the States, and researching the best places to visit etc. Again FT was an absolute goldmine of knowledge, and I would soon learn that the best Star Alliance option to cross the Atlantic was US Airways, as they don’t charge YQ, so award redemptions on US are much cheaper than any other carrier.
The second thing I worked into my planning was that the actual European starting point for the trip made very little difference to the overall cost. Thanks to UK APD, the small cost of taking an FR or EZY flight to another USAir destination on the continent or Dublin meant that the cost would work out pretty much the same whichever route we took, so we could be pretty flexible The only other decision to make was which direction to upgrade to Business class. We chose the inbound leg of the trip, the reasoning being that the excitement and anticipation would more than make up for being in economy on the way over, and that we would be more tired after a long trip, and therefore more appreciative of J class on the way home.
So the booking was finally made in April, and looked like this, starting on Sunday 20th May, returning home on June 5th.
BRU-PHL (stop) LGA-CLE-LAS (all in economy, and a Ryanair MAN-CRL to get us to Brussels the day before)
LAS-ORD (Stop) ORD-CLE-PHL-GLA (ORD-PHL via CLE being in Y due to lack of J availability, and the other sectors being in J)
Flying back to Glasgow wasn’t a big deal, as there were plenty of reasonably priced train options home from there, but I knew that the GLA flight was a 757, and that the A330 was a much better J product on USAir, so I would keep checking availability (neglecting my dear wife even further) to see if a better option came available.
Alas, ‘twas so! Within a couple of weeks, PHL-MUC-MAN on the A330 (MUC-MAN on LH) came available, as well as a direct business/first class ORD-PHL at a much more convenient time than the previous booking. Was it worth the £20 change fee per person? Yep, an absolute no-brainer!!
So it was settled, we would spend 3 nights in Philly, 5 in NYC, 4 in Vegas, and 3 in Chicago to complete our mini US-tour. Looking back now, I do wonder how my wife puts up with me!! She was not only willing to let me do such a trip with my friend, but I really did spend countless hours staring at my laptop over a period of weeks planning the entire trip!! How many wives would put up with that??! (Don’t worry, keep reading ‘till the end, I get her a nice gift!!) The net is a fantastic resource though, and thanks to Tripadvisor, Hotwire etc, I bagged some nice hotels at decent prices, and got some great dining, nightlife etc tips!
So the day was finally here. Well, kind of anyway, we would only be flying to Brussels today which didn’t excite me at all, but it felt like the proper start of a trip anyway. My darling wife drove us the 1hr45m to Manchester Airport, and after a hug and a kiss, it was just me and M for the next 17 days. I quite like Manchester airport, I’ve flown from there loads of times, and never really had any issues at any of the terminals. I know that T2 is the nicer, modern one, but T1&3 are fine as well, and have a generally nicer feel than Liverpool for example, which is very much a LCC airport.
We checked our bags in good time, and had a quick bite to eat at the Italian restaurant in departures. As far as the flight goes, there’s not much to say really. In my experience, a Ryanair flight is a Ryanair flight – no more, no less. All the ones I’ve taken have been pretty much the same- good value (£27 each including checked baggage and all fees), generally efficient, okay-ish comfort, not an exactly relaxing environment thanks to constant announcements trying to sell food, scratch cards, duty free, the kitchen sink etc. They’re also generally on time in my experience, and they let you know that with the tedious little fanfare when you touch-down! “Another on-time arrival by Ryanair blah, blah blah…” To be honest though, it’s difficult not to be on time when their official timetable states that it takes half a day to fly from Manchester to Dublin!! Regardless, if the flight is no more than 2-3 hours I’m happy to fly Ryanair, and have had some fantastic bargains in the past (£12 return, all-in fare to Rome in January 2010, £6 single from Turin to Barcelona + many other examples).
CRL is about an hour on the airport coach from Brussels, and being a ‘Ryanair’ airport, it was the usual scrum to get on the first available shuttle bus. The ‘secret’ hotel I booked on Hotwire (Gresham Belson) was located rather unhelpfully between the city centre and BRU airport. We found the connecting bus eventually, which stopped right outside the hotel. A little tired, and hungry, we had a short stroll along the main road outside the hotel, and tried the local equivalent of what we would call a ‘chippy’ (Fish and Chip shop), before returning to the hotel room, which was a perfectly acceptable 3-4* mainly business orientated establishment. An early night would have been sensible, but the Champions League final was on that evening, which went into extra time, and then into penalties, so the TV was still on much later than planned!!
BRU-PHL (US Airways flight 751- Boeing 767)
We woke up nice and early despite the previous night’s somewhat late football match, each had a quick shower, and were both eager to start the trip proper. The hotel ran a very useful, efficient, and most importantly, free (!!) airport shuttle, and we had reserved 2 seats on the 8am shuttle the night before. The only other passenger was a Canadian gentleman with whom we discussed the previous night’s football match on the short 10 minute trip to the airport terminal. We were soon in the queue for check-in, and received quite an inquisition from the lady who scanned our passports in the line for check-in. What’s the purpose of your trip? Where are you staying? What are your return travel plans? (We had booked two one-ways) Why aren’t you flying directly from the UK? It was all very courteous though, and we had no secrets, so all was ok!! We made our way through security and had a small breakfast before heading to the gate well over an hour prior to departure. This is where things almost took a turn for the worst, and our meticulously planned holiday could have come to an abrupt halt!!
We had taken seats just around the corner from the actual boarding area, so even though we were within about 20 yards of the gate, we couldn’t see the gate agents, the queue of passengers etc. Our tickets indicated that we were in boarding zone 6. They started calling zones in the usual fashion, high status passengers, military personnel, etc first, then zone 1, zone 1-2 etc, until they got to Zone 1-4. A few minutes passed with no further announcements. I thought nothing of this, just assumed that Zone 4 might be the bulk of the passengers, meaning that it took a while to board everyone in this group. A couple of minutes pass and I start wondering when they’ll call Zone 5, Zone 6 etc, so I said to M, “I’ll just go to the toilet quickly, then we’ll ask when zone 6 will be boarding”. The toilets were 50 yards or so further into the departures lounge, and when I emerged from them a couple of minutes later, I see M frantically waving his arms at me by the gate, inviting me to make haste shall we say!! Apparently we were the last passengers remaining and our names had just been given a last-call over the tannoy at the gate! Oops! Not the best start, and could have been very embarrassing! “Yes, my dear wife/family/friends, we flew all the way to Brussels just to catch a flight to Philadelphia that we’ve been planning in extreme detail for weeks…..and we somehow missed the flight!!” Let’s be honest, no-one wants to have that conversation…ever!!
Looking back now though, it seems quite amusing, and realistically, we were probably never in danger of missing the flight, as you usually hear names being called 3 or 4 times before they eventually close the gate. We were hurried on to the plane, and I never got to ask why zone 6 wasn’t called by the gate – it would be interesting to know if anyone else has had a similar experience??
I had pre-booked our seats on the US website a couple of weeks earlier, and was very happy to bag two seats in a ‘two’ of the 2-3-2 seat formation. I was even happier to have been allowed to select row 8 for no charge, which according to the US website is usually a ‘preferred’ row, which can cost $50 to pre-book. I can see why this section was preferred, it was like a small cabin towards the front (rows 4-11), and compared with row 12 backwards, it was much quieter, felt more private, and was much darker for those who wished to sleep.
I had not read good things about the 767 on FT “7 hours of hell” etc so I was a little worried about comfort, boredom etc on my first long haul flight. There was no need to worry; the flight and plane were both perfectly fine. The seat was comfortable and the legroom adequate enough - though it would have been nice to have an adjustable headrest.
Service onboard was excellent, and just as importantly, done with a smile and courtesy (It really does go a long way!) Drinks service was more than frequent enough, with full cans (350ml) of soft drinks provided as opposed to just a little plastic glass. Free alcohol would have been nice though! The meal was perfectly edible – A pasta in tomato sauce topped with mozzarella cheese. I think M took the Beef Stew, which was basically a Cottage Pie.
The only think lacking on the flight was the IFE – no VOD and 3 distinctly average (and that’s being generous) in flight movies. I believe they were The Vow, Percy Jackson Lightning Thief and Taxi (The Queen Latifah version ) Fortunately, I had purchased a small Android tablet PC for the trip, and it was fully loaded with movies and tv shows. As we were going to Philly, I watched Rocky Balboa! I believe the official flight time was 8hours 40minutes, but actual time was 7hours 30minutes. We therefore descended on a warm and sunny Philadelphia a little earlier than anticipated. Fortunately, this also meant that our Brussels flight was the first European flight of the day to land – so no queues at immigration!! Being in row 8, we were off the plane quickly, and were fingerprinted and eye-scanned by a nice lady within minutes! Had we arrived an hour later, we would have been queuing with passengers from all over Europe, so the Brussels departure had worked out well.
Our baggage were among the first on the carousel, so we headed for the SEPTA train towards City Center (two things surprised me about the SEPTA airport train – its relative infrequent schedule for such a large airport and city, and that it was ‘pay on board’ only – which seemed rather old-fashioned!). The biggest surprise came though when I glanced at the Septa map. Now, I was aware that Philly had strong Welsh connections, that Pennsylvania had been one of the main settling areas of Welsh-Americans, and that several signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Welsh, but I did not expect to see so many Welsh names on Septa stations. Cynwyd, Bala, Meirion, Bryn Mawr, Gwynedd etc are all names very familiar to me, though I did wonder how the locals pronounced those names!!
The SEPTA was very efficient however, and got us to our exit (Suburban) in good time. From there, it was a three block walk, passing the impressive Comcast Center to the Sheraton City Center hotel – which was very reasonably (about £145 total) procured for our 3 night stay via Hotwire.
Unfortunately, we were a little too early to check in, so we left out bags at the desk, and went for a quick walk to familiarize ourselves with the City. We would be leaving Philly in 3 days time via Megabus, so we walked up to 30th Street Station to find the bus stop. A very helpful police officer pointed us in the right direction. 30th Street Station is a beautiful building, with its large open concourse and high ceilings. It’s seeing places like this, a functional building but with such stunning architecture, which makes travelling to new countries and cities so worthwhile. What truly surprised me though was how little train and passenger traffic passed through the station. I don’t think there were ever any more than 5 or 6 trains per hour entering/exiting the station. I was truly surprised to see how little passengers travel through the USA’s huge, famous train terminals (30th Street, NY Penn, Grand Central and Union Station). My research taught me that the busiest terminal in the country (NY Penn) has around 10 million Amtrak passenger entry/exits a year. London’s Waterloo has around 90 million National Rail passengers – and that’s just one of several huge termini in London. Even Cardiff – Wales’ capital city (a city of about 300,000 people) has 11 million National Rail entries and exits per annum – I guess it says much about the geography of the US as well as travelling habits.
Back to Philly though – a wonderful city, and the Sheraton was a decent base from which to explore it. Not exactly in the centre of the nightlife action, but easy walking distance to City Hall, Reading Terminal Market, Macy’s etc. We did all the touristy things, and were blessed with excellent weather throughout our stay (this was true of all the cities we visited). We visited Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Rocky statue/steps and Eastern State Penitentiary. I thoroughly enjoyed my first Baseball game (Phillies v Washington), event though the Phillies sadly lost! The view from the top of City Hall was fantastic, was well worth the $5 admission, and I was really shocked that this wasn’t a busier attraction – there just three of us on our tour. Maybe they should do more marketing, as it offers great views of the city, and as the Comcast Center et al don’t have an observation deck, it’s the best vantage point in the city.
One afternoon, and completely by accident, we stumbled across the memorial to Irish and Scottish immigrants (it’s down near the Old City, not far from Penn’s Landing). As nice as it was, I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t a memorial to Welsh settlers along with our Celtic cousins’. While the Welsh never migrated to the Americas on the same scale as the Irish, they did have a lot of influence in this particular part of the US, especially around the time the USA was ‘born’, so I think that I was as surprised as I was disappointed. It could be that the Welsh identity wasn’t something that mattered so much back then; it was a time when many Welsh people turned their backs on the Welsh language for example, and spoke English instead to help them get along in the world. I suspect that is especially true of migrants to America, and they may have presented themselves as ‘British’ as opposed to ‘Welsh’. I’ve always felt however that you should never judge someone’s historical cultural actions or identity by your own modern standards – identity and heritage are living, changeable things, and at times through Welsh history, it’s been very fragile (Remember that Wales was essentially the first colony of what became the biggest and most powerful empire in the world – that we have any indigenous culture left at all is a miracle!!). I guess I can take comfort in my own disappointment on this occasion, which maybe says much about the current strength or consciousness of our national identity.
Enough history! Now then, I promised some culinary treats at the start of the report, and Philly certainly didn’t disappoint in this respect. I had seen the Franklin Fountain Ice Cream Parlour on Man Vs Food, and the Ice Cream bowls there were well worth $10 each. I had ‘Vesuvius’, while M had a truly artistic mint creation.
I really wanted to sample American fast food on the trip, and was aware that America had several large chains of fast food joints – unlike the UK which has McDonalds and Burger King and nothing much else. I had heard of two in particular, namely Five Guys, who operated along the East Coast, and In-N-Out, who were on the Wet coast. Conveniently, there was a Five Guys about 5 minutes from the Sheraton. IT WAS AWESOME – honestly, if any of the “5 guys” are reading this, come over to Wales, the UK, Europe…everywhere! Seriously, if they came to this country, I honestly think they could run McDonalds out of business!! Gorgeous double burgers freshly cooked to order, with whichever toppings you want, freshly cut chips (fries), and monkey nuts to eat while you wait – none of the ingredients are ever frozen etc– absolutely fantastic – thinking about it makes we want jump on the first plane back to Philly!
The only other place I want to mention is Reading Terminal Market – a very busy indoor food market in the city centre. There’s something for all tastes, at any time of the day. Breakfast one day was a crepe with apple-cinnamon filling, topped with whipped cream….well I was on holiday!!
We visited many bars during the evenings, and a warm welcome was received at each one to be fair. What surprised me in such a large city was that all the patrons seemed to know each other – they were essentially ‘locals’ bars – think ‘Cheers’ for lack of a better reference point! Everyone was friendly, and we drank many free beers during our stay in the city. One thing I had been nervous about was the US’ tipping culture – which as most people know is very different to what we have in the UK – I’m not a tight-arse, I was worried about not tipping enough – but we soon got the hang of the etiquette at bars restaurants etc – just do as the locals do! The most memorable ‘bar’ moment came at a Karaoke bar down in the old city. It was about 12:30am , someone went up to sing ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey, and I swear on my life – people ran in off the street to sing and dance along – just like in Family Guy (and if you haven’t seen the scene in question on Family Guy – well, what have you been doing with your life?? ;-) ).
Wednesday soon came along, and it was time to leave Philly for New York. That journey would be done by bus – Megabus to be precise. I had reserved our tickets on the web for $5.50 each beforehand – fantastic value. We were among the first on to the double-decker bus, and took seats upstairs, right at the front so we could see all the sights along the journey. To be honest, there weren’t too many sights to be seen on the 2.5hour journey, but to be fair, it was essentially a motorway (freeway?) the entire journey. I’d happily use Megabus again, comfortable seats, Air-con and free wifi – what more could anyone need??
Our hotel was in Queens (Quality Inn Woodside), so once in Manhattan, there was a short ride to Times Sq subway station to change to the 7 train, which would take us within a block of the hotel. I know most people tend to stay around the Times Sq area, especially first time visitors to NYC, but having walked around Times Sq a few times during our stay, I cannot for the life of understand why. There’s nothing there but for some bright flashing lights!! It’s overcrowded and the bars serve over-priced, second rate beer. While staying in Manhattan (but not Times Sq!!) would have been more convenient for popping back and forth to the hotel during our stay, we probably saved around £400-500 by staying in Queens, which was only 20 minutes on the subway from Grand Central. Personally, I chose to spend the saving elsewhere, and it’s a decision I would happily make again.
Again the hotel itself was perfectly adequate; comfortable bed, free wi-fi, and I believe only built in the last year or two, so very modern, with a simple continental breakfast provided in the room rate. Its right on Queens Boulevard, in what is mainly a residential area, and while the vicinity may appear a little rough around the edges, it was perfectly safe, and I felt comfortable taking the subway back at 4am then walking from the station to the hotel.
After checking in at around 4pm on Wednesday, we immediately made our way all the way back from Queens to New Jersey!! I had bought tickets for that evening’s football match between NY Red Bulls and Chivas USA. This meant getting a subway down to the World Trade Center and then getting the PATH train to New Jersey – at rush hour!! We made it on time though and The Red Bull Arena, a new purpose built football stadium, was quite impressive. The match itself wasn’t quite as impressive though. I was quite shocked at how low the standard was. The MLS seems to be a great set-up, and with the game growing in popularity, I’m sure standards will improve eventually. I was left pondering what on earth possessed Thierry Henry, David Beckham and Robbie Keane to go and play in the MLS though – it must have been the NYC and LA lifestyle, ‘cause it sure as hell wasn’t for the football!!
The rest of our NYC stay was typically touristy, with visits to Central Park, Museum of Natural History, Top of The Rock, Liberty & Ellis Island, WTC Memorial, Schwarz, Grand Central, Brooklyn Bridge etc.
We came across some great bars and did a bit of a pub crawl towards the lower end of 1st and 2nd Avenues, and took in a late show at The Comedy Cellar on the Thursday night. Fantastic value at $15 to see top class comedians, including Aziz Ansari, and my favourite of the night, Andrew Schulz – a name to remember if you’re a stand up fan. We certainly made the most of the city that ‘never sleeps’ – the earliest we arrived back at the hotel for the first four nights was about 4am!!
The Sunday was of course the day of the Wales-Mexico match, which was held at the very impressive MetLife stadium, again in New Jersey. There were around 250 Wales fans that had made the trip over to NYC for the match, and we met up with many familiar faces at the Legends Bar, which is opposite the Empire State Building. We had actually met the Wales team here on Thursday evening, getting some photos with star players Aaron Ramsey and Craig Bellamy (neither of which seemed very pleased to be there!), as well as with coach Chris Coleman. Unfortunately, our true star player, Gareth Bale, was injured, and hadn’t made the trip. (For those who don’t follow football, Gareth Bale is considered to be among the best, and certainly most exciting players in the World)
On match day, buses had been arranged to ferry us from Legends Bar to New Jersey and back again, all done very efficiently to be fair. The game itself was a disappointment, Wales losing 2-0 to a superior Mexican side, in searing heat and humidity, which we’re just not used to back home!! I was having a hard time standing up, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like for the players running around the field!! I don’t want to bleat about football (honestly!!) but it’s been a strange and difficult few months for the Wales team, and I don’t think they’ve yet recovered from the tragic passing of Gary Speed, the team’s Head Coach, late in 2011. It’s a young team though, and I’m confident of success in the future.
We would be leaving New York for Las Vegas early the following morning (Monday 28th, which was also Memorial Day in the US), so there would be no drinking until 4am! It was a particularly early night by our standards, and we were checking out promptly at 6am to get the Subway, and then bus to LaGuardia airport. The early hour, combined with a reduced Memorial Day schedule, meant quite a long wait for the bus, and a packed bus when it did arrive, but it was a fairly short ride from 83rd Street to the United terminal at LaGuardia
I didn’t like LaGuardia very much. I only saw the United Terminal, but it all felt very cramped, the check in area was very narrow, and signage was poor for security and boarding gates. Thankfully, we didn’t have to spend much time at the airport. There was time for a quick Danish pastry before it was time to board the small Embraer which would take us to our connecting flight in Cleveland. I’d been on this type of plane a few times before thanks to FlyBe, and while there can be limited headroom, and crucially, limited storage space, I’ve found them pleasant planes due to the lower passenger capacity, which makes everything to do with boarding, luggage etc, that little but quicker.
Not that it made much difference today to be honest, as our baggage was checked through to Vegas, and we had a 3 hour wait in CLE for our onward flight. CLE seemed a pleasant enough airport, spacious, with a good selection of dining options around the central terminal area. We set up camp at a corner table overlooking the runway, and watched the world go by for a few hours. I started watching ‘The Hangover’ on my Android tablet, but it was time to board before the film concluded. We got a nice surprise once on board, we were in Premium Economy. I’m not sure how that happened, I don’t remember choosing seats for this flight, so we must have been assigned these seats automatically. The only logical reason I could think of that we had got these seats, were that we were among the first to check-in – we had done so some hours earlier in LGA – I could be completely wrong of course!!
I never imagined that a few extra centimetres of legroom could make such a difference, this 3.5 hour flight to Vegas was very comfortable compared with previous experiences of flying in Y. It also helped that there was only M and me in our row of three seats, so we left the middle seat empty. Drinks service was frequent, and as with USAir from BRU, served with a smile. Having checked on Seatguru, it seems this plane was a ‘Continental’ plane, as it had DirecTV at every seat – there was nothing on worth paying the $7 for though, so I finished ‘The Hangover’ and watched some episodes of ‘Extras’. The seat had a decent recline and adjustable headrests, so I could have easily slept on this flight had I chose to, but when changing time zones, I think it’s best just to power through!
Arrival at LAS was uneventful, though the journey from the gate to baggage collection and exit was loooong –walking+shuttle train!! Baggage came along the carousel pretty quickly (Phew! We had heard nightmares about US carriers and baggage from connecting flights etc!), so we were straight out into the very short line for a taxi. Tripadvisor had informed me that money could be saved by avoiding the ‘tunnel’, so I specifically asked for ‘no tunnel’, to which the driver kindly obliged. We were staying at the Flamingo, and including tip, the fare came to $20, which was reasonable enough. The Flamingo isn’t the fanciest Vegas hotel by a long shot and is certainly showing its age, but its centre-strip location appealed, as did the price - £82 total for four nights!! The queue for check-in was long and slow (this appeared to be the case throughout our stay, at pretty much any time of the day!), and even though I had signed up for the players club, it wasn’t clear whether I could use the quicker, preferred check-in line for Gold members or not (my card didn’t state what my membership level was). M had already started queuing in the regular line, and I didn’t want to risk being turned away from the quicker line and having to start queuing form the back again, so we waited it out in the regular line. I was keen to try the much vaunted $20 dollar trick to get an upgrade. I figured if it works, fantastic, it not, well I haven’t lost anything! It did work!! The girl at check-in was very friendly, and I placed a $20 bill on top of the desk when asked for my ID and credit card, asking with a smile “Are there any upgrades available?” She smiled back, took the $20 off the desk with my ID and CC, and said “Absolutely, I’m sure we can work something out for you”. We had booked a bog-standard room (well, what else for £20.50 per night??!) and for the extra $20, we were given a luxury room (I think they’re called the renovated FAB Luxury rooms) on the executive level – which is the top floor of the hotel, with floor to ceiling windows and strip view – lovely!!
Room with a view!!
How was Vegas? If I had to sum it up in one word, that word would be ‘hot’! Too hot in fact, especially for a fair—skinned Welshman like myself. Summer at home is when the rain slows down a little bit – not this searing 100+degree heat!! It was great fun though, and totally unique!
As a quick summary, the first day was a complete washout from my perspective. We had a quick walk up and down the centre strip area, then went to the buffet – big mistake, as I seriously over indulged on the desserts – could barely walk afterwards, absolutely no room left in my stomach for alcohol, and as it had been quite a long day, I ended up in bed by about 11pm – talk about epic fail!! The next few days were better though, and while I quite enjoy a game of Texas Hold’em, huge casinos were a completely new concept for me, and I was rather overwhelmed, so gambled very little during my stay. The best night was easily Wednesday night. We caught the Deuce to the Stratosphere, going to the top of the tower for the views and a couple of the thrill rides – which was great fun, then getting back on the Deuce onwards to Downtown and The Freemont Street experience. This was fantastic, and in my opinion, was a much better night out than anything we experienced on the strip. Live music, the video show overhead every hour, and a very friendly vibe to go along with the frozen margaritas from plastic glasses shaped like American footballs! This was quite an alcohol filled day/night, as we had been drinking frozen margaritas for several hours that afternoon – the $1 ones at the Casino Royale a popular bargain it seemed, along with happy hours at TI and Flamingo (the ones at the Flam were the best, the top of the glass twisted in sugar – very yummy for those with a sweet tooth like me!) If there was one night which came close to being a ‘The Hangover’ night, it was this one, culminating in M using my phone to film me rugby tackling a poor guy in a Smurf costume – I might post the video on here if I get enough requests!!
Earlier in the day, there was also a very amusing conversation at a restaurant in Planet Hollywood. Our waitress was showing us to our table and asked “So where are you guys from?”
Waitress: Wales? That’s Wales as in um….?
Me: as in the country in Europe – its part of the UK.
Waitress: (surprised) Oh!!.....I was thinking more like the Ocean!!
Yes folks, that’s right, she though that we lived with, or possibly inside, a Whale!!
Pre-trip, I think the city I had researched most was Vegas, reading tons of trip-reports etc, and every one seemed to contain loads of drinking, gambling, great food, shows, pool parties, nightclubs etc, and upon leaving, and even now, I’m a little disappointed with my experience of Vegas. I had read that it was best not to make a strict itinerary etc in Vegas, due to the ‘party’ type nature of the place However, as a first time visitor, I think I would have been better off with some kind of action plan. I didn’t enter into a poker tournament, didn’t experience the free booze while gambling, didn’t go to a nightclub, and didn’t even sample a burger at In-N-Out which was a shame as I wanted to compare it with Five Guys.
I think the heat was partially to blame. I genuinely didn’t like the dry desert heat, so being in the sunlight for more than a few minutes during daytime was out of the question. It also makes me pretty grumpy if I’m honest, so with the exception of the night spent on Freemont Street, I never really got into the right ‘Vegas’ mood. Will I return? Absolutely – I am not done with you Las Vegas, though the next visit will be at a cooler time of year, I’m thinking November maybe!!
One thing I did get right though was the centre-strip hotel choice, that’s where all the action is. I would never want to stay South of say the MGM Grand, or North of the Wynn/Encore. We visited Mandalay Bay and the Luxor, and they were absolutely deserted. Honestly, more atmosphere on the moon is the cliché which comes to mind. The same was true for North strip hotels such as Circus Circus and the Strat – much too far away from all the action.
So Friday morning arrived and it was time to start heading East. Psychologically, even though we were spending a full weekend in Chicago, it felt like we were starting our journey home. We checked out through the TV, which was nice and convenient, and got a cab back to the airport. As per our arrival a few days earlier, the fare was $20 inclusive of tip.
Our flights home were booked as J class, which meant domestic F class on United. We checked in at the First Class desk where there was very little queuing required. At check-in, the agent, being polite and making small talk, asked M and I if we were brothers (He’s a year older and we share the same surname). ‘No’, we replied. ‘Cousins then?’ she asked ‘Nope! We’re not related at all, it’s just a very common surname where we come from!” Basically, if you added together all the Jones, Williams, Roberts, Evans, Hughes and Morgans in Wales, you’d probably have around 75% of the population!!
Priority check-in was a breeze, and just a word about the TSA. I had heard a lot about the security checks at US Airports, with internet reports etc making these TSA guys sound like the Stasi! Frankly, I saw no difference in the security procedures in the US to the ones I encountered last week on a UK domestic flight from Manchester to Belfast. In fact, I found the TSA staff to be quite amicable and professional at every airport.
I was quite disappointed that an F ticket didn’t get us any lounge access, and if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t pay extra for the in-flight F domestic product on this flight either. I was in 3B, and yes, you get nice legroom, but the breakfast was nothing to write home about (cereal or omelette with the usual breakfast extras), and someone had apparently downloaded the wrong files or videos or something, so there would be no IFE on this flight. I’ve not researched the difference in price between Y and F on this flight on a paid ticket, but if the difference was anything more than a £100 (which I assume it is), I honestly wouldn’t bother.
The flight itself was fine though, getting into a nice and sunny ORD a little early. When I say nice and sunny, it was about 75 degrees, which was nice and bearable compared to the 104 degrees we had left behind in Vegas!
ORD is a huge airport, but pretty well signed in general, and we found the CTA Metro (blue line) station easily enough, and bought a 3 day pass at a very reasonable $14. We were staying in Greektown, which was about a 10 minute walk from the Sears (or Willis if you must!) Tower. The blue line took us within a block of our lodgings, which was good because it felt like our luggage got heavier and heavier as the days went by.
June had arrived in Chicago with not a single cloud in tow, so it was a perfect afternoon to go to the top of Sears, especially as we were staying so close. The view from the top was fantastic, Lake Michigan goes on foreeever! I stood on the Skydeck as well, which is a really cool idea, but only for a few seconds to get some photos!
A must-do while in Chicago was some deep-dish pizza, so once we were back on terra firma, we headed across the road to Giordano’s. Unfortunately, we misjudged the size of the pizzas in this place. The menu offered three size options; small, regular, large, with ‘small’ being the suggested size for 1-2 people. We thought that a ‘small’ each would be the best choice, assuming that the pizzas we were seeing coming out of the kitchen for tables of 3-4 people were ‘regular’ sized. Oh, no! Those huge pizza pies were ‘small’ ones! I went for pineapple while ‘M’ had shrimp on his. As they were freshly made to order, there was a 35-40 minute wait, so we had a plate of fries while we waited, which of course was a mistake! Now I can eat…..a lot, but I was not prepared for this pizza, it simply fills your stomach in just a few bites. The base is basically like a pie crust, not your usual pizza base, and the cheese is about an inch thick! I managed to eat about half of mine, the rest being boxed and handed to a homeless person on Michigan Avenue – I wouldn’t like placing that much food into a dumpster. Obviously I would have enjoyed the pizza better if I hadn’t gorged on fries before its arrival, but I don’t think I would ever want to eat a whole ‘small’ pizza in any case; more cheese than can possibly be healthy, and the sauce was a little too salty for my liking.
The monster pizza
Saturday was spent sight-seeing, the free Zoo at Lincoln Park, Cloud Gate (the Bean), Navy Pier, Start of Route 66 etc being visited on another warm, sunny day. I was pretty tired by the evening, but we did venture down to a Chinatown bakery for some sweet delights. I had never visited a Chinese bakery before and had no idea they made such a variety of cakes. I guess I had never considered that aspect of Chinese cuisine before; like most people I suspect, my experience of Chinese food is the fortnightly takeaway!
On Sunday, we saw the White Sox play the Seattle Mariners, and beat them quite comfortably, the White Sox pitcher on fantastic form. It was a rather sparsely attended game, without the same entertainment factor as the Phillies game we had attended days earlier, which was a shame, given the positive result.
White Sox v Mariners
Tomorrow we would begin the long journey home, and given the 13:40 departure from ORD, there wouldn’t be much time to do much in the morning. So after the game we headed straight back downtown to Michigan Avenue, for some last minute gift-shopping. I went to the Apple store and bought one of the latest Ipads for my dear wife (I told you I would get her something nice!) and some t-shirts etc for nieces and nephews. If I’d had my head screwed on right earlier in the trip, I could have popped over to Delaware while in Philly and got the Ipad tax-free, but what can you do! It was still cheaper than back home, so that’s some consolation!
On our very last night in the States, we had a quiet curry at an even quieter Indian restaurant. It was perfectly adequate, but we certainly realised that ‘bhuna’ and ‘tikka massala’ mean very different things in the UK to what they do in the States (and from experience, the UK’s Indian curries are very different to pretty much every country in Europe as well).
ORD-PHL - UA1667 B737-800 Domestic First Class
The return to ORD from Downtown was again done on the Blue line, taking around 40 minutes from our station (ULC-Halstead). Check-in was a breeze, and I was happy that the luggage was being checked through all the way to MAN, though the ‘fast-track’ security line didn’t live up to it’s ‘fast’ billing.
Prior to our departure, there was a flight to NYC departing from the same gate, and the ‘stand-by’ list for this flight proved to be most entertaining. I had never come across TV screens displaying stand by list before, and there were two pages full of people on stand-by for this NYC flight. As the flight boarded, there were quite a few of them congregated around the UA agent’s desk at the gate. There were three people who hadn’t boarded, and calls went out for these passengers. Every couple of minutes someone would walk up to the gate to query about boarding, mostly passengers who were waiting for our PHL flight. The faces of the stand-by passengers whenever someone walked up to the gate were fantastic. ‘Please no, don’t get on the plane!’, proper hearts in mouth stuff for them, which I found most amusing. I was tempted to take part in this myself by strolling up to the gate with a trivial query, but decided that this would be too cruel. In the end, I think 3 or 4 off the stand-by list were allocated seats on the flight, so at least some of them were happy.
The gate area was quite small, so the boarding process was a bit of a scrum, but we had our seats in 1A and 1B, and had very little hand luggage, so we had no interest in joining the scrum. This was another ex-CO plane, so DirecTV at every seat, and for free this time as we were in First. As I said about the LAS-ORD segment, the legroom was good, but in the absence of lounge access etc, I would seriously question the value for money offered by revenue F tickets, particularly on fairly short routes like ORD-PHL. There wasn’t even any sort of meal service – which was disappointing as the official flight time was exactly 2 hours. All we got was a snack basket passed around once, which contained tiny packs of crisps and other nibbles, pretty poor in my opinion. I watched Due Date on the IFE, but as the flight was actually a little shorter than the official 2 hours, I didn’t quite get to see the end.
PHL-MUC US708 A330-300 Envoy Class
Seat 2 H
Once at PHL, we walked straight over from Terminal D over to Terminal A, and up the elevator to the US Lounge. It wasn’t very busy in there, though it was a big lounge area, so it maybe it just didn’t seem busy. We were given vouchers for wifi and one premium drink (really? One alcoholic drink? If I was paying $$$ for my Envoy ticket, I wouldn’t be very impressed with the one drink rule!) The snacks were quite nice though, and as the catering on the UA flight had been disappointing, I was pretty hungry so wolfed down some biscuits, as well as some chips with a spicy salsa dip.
The flight was soon called in the lounge, and we made our way on to the gate. The plane would be boarded by the front door only, so after we took our seats, all the Y passengers then walked by us to their seats. I think it’s safe to say M and I felt pretty smug in our Envoy seats for our first premium long-haul experience! I had read on FT that the best seats for 2 travelling together where ones across the aisle from each other, so I was in 2H, with M in 2F.
The seats themselves were fantastic; sensibly designed, with power outlets and room for all your gadgets. The fully-flat bed was extremely comfortable – I would be more than happy to spend hours on end in this seat, and sincerely hope I get to experience it again. The IFE screen was large, and the system itself was quick and easy to use, with a huge library of movies, tv shows and music.
Blankets and pillows were already on the seat, and the cabin crew soon distributed headphones and amenity kits as well. The lip-balm from the amenity kit proved particularly useful as my lips were still very dry and chapped from the dry desert air in Vegas.
This was a very busy time of day at PHL, and taxi time was close to an hour – at one point, we were number 17 in the departure queue! Who cares though, we were in Envoy, and even with my legs stretched right out, my feet didn’t even reach the footrest set into the seat in front! Pre-departure drinks were served – I only had some juice as I don’t care for champagne. Menus were handed out and orders taken for the first drinks service.
As this was an overnight flight, the first drink and meal service commenced very quickly once we were airborne, warm nuts being served with the drink, and the meal being presented very nicely. It was all very tasty; I had the Chicken entrée and the chocolate cake for dessert. The cake was nice, but I kinda wished I’d gone for the ice cream. Again, drinks were replenished regularly, and service provided with a kind smile by all.
Once the meal service was finished, lights were dimmed and many passengers turned in for the night. Not me though! I wasn’t planning on sleeping right through my first Envoy experience. It was time to test the IFE. I watched, ‘In Time’, which has an excellent concept (I love a good sci-fi flick!), but I was rather disappointed by the ending – still worth a watch though.
Once the film ended, I wanted to try the bed in fully flat position, so I set-up a playlist from the music choices, and shut my eyes for an hour or so, just enough to experience a ‘bed in the air’, but not so much as to waste my time in J class! As mentioned previously, the seat/bed is very comfortable, and had I been so inclined, I could have easily had a good night’s sleep with my easily-listening playlist, eye-mask and blanket! The reverse herringbone seat layout make each ‘suite’ very private, which made me feel very comfortable, as it felt like a very personal space, if that makes sense!
After the hour of shut-eye, I brought the seat back up to a more ‘lounging’ position and settled to watch 21 Jump Street. This proved to be a very watchable comedy about two recently qualified cops sent back to school undercover. This sounds a little cliché (Never Been Kissed etc) but it’s written from a great angle, and shows how young people’s experience and behaviour has changed over the last few years. It’s a film certainly aimed at my generation, and even though the underlying plot was a little weak (finding a drug dealer), I could very much relate to most of the themes and the characters’ experiences – kudos to the writers- another movie well worth watching!
By the time this movie had concluded, we were over Wales (Could you just drop us off here please Mr Captain??!!), it was light out, and time to start breakfast service. I opted for the cereal and fruit plate, which was all very nice and refreshing, and served with my favourite – a cinnamon roll!
After breakfast I (along with every other passenger I think!) went to the bathroom to clean my teeth, and there was just enough time to watch an episode each of Family Guy and King Of Queens before we made our descent into MUC. We landed pretty much bang-on time, thanks to a flight time of 7.5 hours, combined with a delayed take-off from PHL.
Lufthansa Flight LH2502
Once in the terminal, we paid a quick visit to the Lufthansa desk to have our boarding cards printed, the kind desk lady pointing us straight towards the Business Lounge, where we would spend most of the next 6 hours waiting for our final leg to MAN. At this time of the morning, the Lounge was pretty busy, but it got much quieter as the morning went on, before filling up again after lunchtime. The lounge was comfortable enough, with quite a good selection of snacks and drinks available, with tables being cleared of glasses and plates very frequently. However, some variation in the seating would have been nice, it was all rather functional upright table and chairs. It would have been nice to have a quieter section with reclining chairs or similar for example.
I knew that I wouldn’t be home until about 7pm, and that I was straight back at work the following morning, so I was determined to stay awake throughout the day, get back to my ‘home’ timezone and get as good a night’s sleep as possible. This meant fighting boredom and fatigue for several hours, which basically meant drinking a lot of Diet Coke, and eating a lot of the gummy bears on offer at the lounge – let’s keep the sugar levels high!!
I also went out of the lounge for a walk around the airport shops. I bought some chocolates for the in-laws, and a Calvin Klein necklace for the wife. Now this was actually a cruel. She had been pestering me for days about what her gift was, and while I hadn’t given her any clue as to what it was, I had said it was something bought on the trendy part of Michigan Avenue. The necklace was only about 40 Euros, but came in the fancy CK box etc. The plan was that I would pretend that this was her ‘main’ gift, and it wasn’t necessarily a bad gift, but I knew she’d be expecting something nicer. It worked beautifully, she tried, but couldn’t hide her disappointment with the necklace and she was both surprised and delighted when I handed her the Apple bag!! Aren’t I cruel!!??
The flight from MUC-MAN took around 1hr45minutes, and was all on time and straightforward. We were bussed to the plane, passing the ongoing construction work expanding the terminal buildings at MUC. It seems that LH are really committed to MUC as a second large hub after FRA, and the airport seems to be quite the success story. It’s a shame that BA can’t make something similar work at MAN. I mean what’s so special about LHR anyway?? BA are always complaining that they don’t have the capacity at LHR to enter new markets in the Far East etc, why can’t they operate some flights other than to LHR and LGW from MAN? I’m sure it comes down to simple economics, but if LH can do it on mainland Europe, where there is more ‘local’ competition from Swiss, KLM, AF, Brussels Airlines, Alitalia etc, I think it’s reasonable to question BA’s almost total abandonment of MAN (or BHX for that matter).
The business product on LH was typical of European carriers nowadays, with frankly very little distinction between Y and J. The middle seat was kept empty (big whoop – I usually enjoy that privilege on Ryanair!), there’s no extra legroom and a full meal service was provided. There were 3 rows of J on this flight, so 12 passengers today with one flight attendant looking after us all.The main course was pasta in tomato sauce with mozzarella cheese – very edible, and quite similar to the meal I’d had on the BRU-PHL flight some 16 days earlier (was it really that long ago?!). The starter and dessert were both pretentious nonsense creations which I didn’t bother with, some kind of tiny fish mousse to start and then a cube of some sort of wild berry jelly floating in some pink water with leaves in it for dessert. Honestly, that’s not a dessert is it - just give me a bloody donut or ice cream or something!! I wish I had taken a photo of the meal, but to be honest, I was struggling to stay awake at this point! The service was efficient as one would expect from LH, but without the same care and more importantly, genuine smile that was provided by the USAir staff.
There was a very familiar feeling about landing back at MAN, on what was a slightly drizzly early June afternoon. I realised while going through the electronic passport control gates at MAN, that the only time we had been through any sort of security was at ORD, about 24 hours earlier, which I found a little strange, but I guess that’s the norm with all connecting flights. One thing I did find strange at MAN were the baggage carousel – it’s not wide enough where the bags enter the public area – bag were forever getting stuck as they popped up onto the carousel, with someone constantly having to poke/pull the bags down to get them moving. I hope that someone got fired over that design flaw – how hard is it to design an effective baggage carousel??!!
Kindly, M’s sister had come to pick us up, and got us both home safely by just after 7pm, which I calculated to be about 27 hours since we had hopped on the Blue line to ORD! I was tired, but very happy to be home with my wife, and sleeping in my own bed that night!
So there we have it, my biggest ever trip, my first long-haul experience, my first lie-flat seat and I’m sure many other firsts which I sincerely hope won’t be lasts! The trip wouldn’t have been possible without BMI’s generous Diamond Club, which I am very sad to see go. It wouldn’t have been dreamed up without the wealth of info on FT – a hat tip to all on the BMI board. Finally thanks to my lovely and understanding wife, who has made great use, and had much joy with the new Ipad over the last few weeks, though I would be lying if I said there wasn’t an ulterior motive in such an extravagant gift. To quote the great Max Boyce from one his famous songs about Rugby trips;
“And we’ll all bring our wives back a present…….so we can go next time again!”
Programs: United 1K/*G, AB Gold/OW Sapphire, Marriott Gold, SPG Gold, Amex Plat, Global Entry
Wonderful report. It's always great to read about FTers from abroad visiting my hometown of Chicago. It's a shame the Cubs weren't in town while you were here. Wrigley Field, while aging and in need of repairs, is worth the experience, and I think you'd find the crowd to be quite a bit bigger and more rambunctious. Cubs fans and White Sox fans don't get along terribly well around here (well--most of the "rivalry" is in good fun, since they are in opposite leagues, and as such, don't really impact each other). Despite the fact that the White Sox have started very well this year, they are having their usual attendance issues.
Thanks for the comments guys! I'll get the Smurf tackling video uploaded soon since you asked so nicely.
To zcat18 and peersteve, yes I truly enjoyed Chicago, though as it was the final city on the tour, I was way too tired to drink so didn't really sample the nightlife! Being known for its skyscrapers, I was surprised at how open and green the city was, nothing like claustrophobic Manhattan!
The Baseball was fun as well; it was nice to see the White Sox win, though the atmosphere was much livelier at the Phillies game. I enjoy most sports, and would have liked to see a basketball or American football game as well, but there were none on during our stay. The ticket prices were very reasonable as well, though the beers were a bit on the expensive side inside the stadia.
I didn't find Baseball slow or boring to be fair, though there's clearly a difference in the culture of watching live sports in the US to over here. Going to a Baseball game seemed to be quite a social occasion, the dining and drinking etc being as important as the game itself, with the singing/chanting etc being driven by the announcer or mascot. In the UK, the main spectator sports (Soccer/Rugby) tend to be more action packed, with boisterous crowds and fierce rivalries. If you’re ever in the UK, I would highly recommend you go to a Premier League Soccer game, and if it’s the right time of the year, a rugby international match (a Six Nations game in Cardiff is truly unique, as the Millennium Stadium http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Millennium_Stadium is right in the heart of the city, only a couple of minutes walk from all the bars and shops)
Of course, I’m not comparing like-with-like, to be fair to the Baseball teams, they play pretty much every day through the season, so the makeup of the crowd will be different every game, whereas Soccer/Rugby teams play on average about once a week, so tend to have the same followers/fans watching them at every game.
The following are the additional photos I promised – menu and amenity bag. The lip balm was particularly useful; the Vegas desert heat had not been kind to my lips!