Join Date: Feb 2002
Programs: RAA RIP; AA ExEXP
Note - the following is a really long trip report/meditation. It is self indulgent. End of disclaimer.
Crowne Plaza Heathrow, 27 December 2005, 6:00 am.
The wake-up call comes right on time, true to its robotic instructions. I answer "Hello?" as if I'm expecting a person to say something. Alertness lags neuromuscular response; I have hung up the phone before I really know what I'm doing.
The woman next to me groans something akin to "Oh no."
The room is freezing. Crikey, I think, it's cold for Israel.
Oh, wait - Israel was yesterday.
Today is Turkey Day.
The room is cold despite the thermostat's setting on 25°C. When we checked in last night at 10 the bellman said if it doesn't start warming up soon he would bring up a space heater. Twenty minutes later I phoned for said heater and 15 seconds before he knocked the room heater suddenly came to life, slowly dispensing warmish air into the room, so I canceled the request. But this morning the room is still way shy of comfortable. Snow is forecast, I learn a bit later.
"You shower first," she says, hoping for a 30-minute reprieve from the cold of the room and the prospect of the day.
I know that doing whatever I can to make this day as comfortable as possible for her, or at least to minimize the inevitable discomfort, is something I've promised and need to follow through on. The tile floor is scary cold, but fortunately the water heaters at the Crowne Plaza work better than the room heaters; the shower is strong and hot. I am awake enough a few minutes later not to have a mishap with the razor. When I come out of the bathroom she's sitting up but not smiling.
Seattle, mid-November 2005.
Round the World airline products like the Oneworld Explorer carry different prices depending on where one purchases the tickets and begins the trip. In April of 2005 Istanbul was one of the cheaper places to buy business-class Oneworld Explorer tickets; even factoring in the cost of getting to Istanbul (and getting home later) it was still cheap enough to warrant the additional travel and expense. So in April we traveled to Turkey, picked up our tickets, and returned home to the US. Later, we used the RTW's North America ticket allowance to attend a party in New York, then we traveled to Hawaii, Australia, Africa, and back to London, where in September we broke the journey with 3 segments remaining. We would complete the RTW in the spring of 2006 with a visit to family in Israel, then a return to Istanbul for some more comprehensive visiting of that fascinating city than we'd been able to fit into a compressed 2005 visit.
Meanwhile, the RTW had been a windfall to our FF accounts (American AAdvantage) both in terms of miles but also in status. Our mileage balances, fortified by AA's generous bonuses for Platinum and higher elites, were growing rapidly. We both re-qualified as Platinum (the second-highest tier) quickly and comfortably, and the proposed 2006 Spring completion of the itinerary would help us easily requalify again next year.
But by early November it became clear that pressure of work and other obligations in the spring would make this itinerary impossible. However, since the RTW must be completed within one year, and the rules are explicit that one must finish the circuit in the same country where it began (with a few regional exceptions, Turkey not being one of them), we had to get back to Istanbul before April, or face unspoken terror at the hands of the British Airways/Oneworld rates departments, who, it's rumored, might have the authority to apply the full business fare retroactively for the whole itinerary. This would be, needless to say, financially inconvenient.
Like for the rest of our lives.
Crowne Plaza Heathrow, 27 December 2005, 7:30 am.
The 7:30 Hotel Hoppa Bus to T1/2/3 (doesn't go to T4, sorry, mate) pulls up looking like a Tokyo subway car. Two passengers with bags are extruded, the driver holds up his hands and says "no mas" or words in Hindi to that effect, and the bus pulls away leaving us and half a dozen other folks standing in the pre-snow dawn looking somewhat pathetic. We quickly sort ourselves out into terminal groups and ask the bellman to start calling taxis, figuring that the morning's transatlantic arrivals will be swamping all available Hoppas, acing us out. Just when he's phoning and complaining that the cabs are all busy too, a backup Hoppa pulls up, empty, and we all board and hand over our three quid each, and off to a crowded Heathrow we go. Fortunately we're going to T1, which is the first stop after the Crowne Plaza, so the ride is okay. We have but one backpack as a carryon, so luggage-struggle, a special bonus of Hopping, is not on the breakfast menu.
Seattle, mid-November 2005.
RTWs and frequent flyer perks and all that are great for people who love to travel. We both love to travel. I love to fly, pretty much anywhere, any circumstance. She does not. It's not that she is a bad flyer - she's able, for example, to sleep on planes, something I can't do no matter how flat the bed or how dark the cabin. But the pressure changes, the hurry-up-and-wait airport environment, the dry cabin air, the grimy feeling you get after a redeye, the crap food if any (oh yeah the champagne says Heidsieck but the beef says mummy) and above all the time changes, are not her thing. Really really not her thing. Elite status for her (as it is for most) is all about the ability to avoid the hassles - fast tracks, etc., and not so much about the upgrades or the better food.
Thus my solution to the timing issue about finishing the RTW and the avoidance of fiscal Armageddon is anything but music to her ears: If we fly our asses off between Thanksgiving and New Years, finish the RTW by going both to Israel and Turkey, and construct longish connecting routes in doing it, in essence a mileage run, we can both accumulate over 100,000 "Q-points" (qualifying points, between 0.5 and 1.5 point per seat mile, depending on fare class) before the end of the year, thus earning AA's top-tier Executive Platinum status, something neither of us has previously achieved. The benefits of EXP status are numerous - some system-wide upgrades with no co-pays on international segments, unlimited domestic upgrades (if available), blah blah.
Plus (and this is important I say to her) if we don't fly another 100,000 miles or earn another 100,000 q-points next year, or even 50,000 (or even 5,000) our status will fall only to Platinum, i.e. where we are now, so we'll still have acceptable line-avoidance status until at least the spring of 2008.
But the routing we need to take to make it to this Olympian height in FFdom is a little aggressive. She is already booked on a business trip to New York in early December, so that needs to be re-booked into a higher fare bucket, for the q-points, and I have to do a one-day mileage run to some place like LA.
Then we need to take a rather appalling string of flights to finish the RTW - SEA-DFW-BOS-LHR-TLV-LHR-IST-LHR-BOS-DFW-SNA - all in the space of 12 days.
Can you see the look on her face?
Heathrow Terminal 1, 27 December 2005, 8:10 am.
We cross the T1 departures floor diagonally to the "Zone R" checkin for BA premium passengers. The agent, a personable young man, does the usual double take at our stickered paper tickets with their long, long listing of segments and rather breathtaking bottom line, then he pulls them and prints out the boarding passes. "Istanbul?"
"Bags?" he asks.
"None," I reply. He gives me a look.
"Can you give us the return BPs?" I ask. Puzzlement. "Here are the PNRs." I hand him a paper with 2 6-character BA locator codes printed. He types them into the system and frowns slightly, then looks up.
"You're coming back today?"
"That's pretty unusual."
I want to reply with something original like, "Duh" but instead I offer the explanation. I get the impression this agent has not encountered many mileage runners and I don't want to go on about it, especially with herself standing there, already convinced I am deranged and dragging her into the same snake pit of frequent flyer dementia that I now inhabit.
He dutifully prints out the return BPs and we head off to the nearby BA lounge for some juice, coffee, and Rupert Murdoch immersion. It's good for the nervous system to have it blasted with crap journalism over machine cappuccinos in BA lounges now and then. Focuses the mind as it were.
Seattle, early December 2005.
The tickets are booked and the seats selected. I have arranged for upgrades on the trans-Atlantic legs and have (amazingly) found reasonably-priced first class fares for the domestic portions of the trip. We need to fly in high-priced fare classes in order to earn enough "Q-points" for those legs, so while the tickets cost considerably more than coach seats for the same flights, the "yield" from the extra cost (i.e. making EXP) is worth it. Or so I tell her. And, of course, it means that with the indirect routing required (Seattle-Dallas-Boston, for example, rather than the quite acceptable nonstop on Alaska Airlines, which would also yield Q-points, but not enough of them) will be more comfortable than riding in the back of very cramped buses.
But the schedule, when printed and handed to her, is pretty grueling-looking. Seattle to Dallas to Boston, arriving around midnight. Next morning the early flight to London, arriving late evening. Priceline Hyatt in the meantime. Been there, done that.
The first complicating factor is that her company holiday party is the night before we're supposed to leave, and we both have to work late the previous evening and a full day before the party, so laundry/packing/etc. will have to be done late at night or early in the morning of departure.
"Are you really sure this is worth it?" she asks on more than one occasion.
"You bet," I answer, while the little voice in me says, "Probably not. This is frequent flyer mishugas." I silence the voice. There are truths that must go unspoken.
BA 676, LHR-IST, 27 December 2005, scheduled 0955 - 1535
By and by our flight is called and we march down to one of the outer reaches of Terminal 1, where our BA 767 awaits. Boarding is delayed a few minutes; snow in the forecast means Heathrow goes into some sort of molecular slowdown, so I'm not surprised. When the door opens, it's all aboard, never mind Club v. Prole categories. No big deal. We take our center-section Club Europe seats, with the skinny empty space between them and bupkis for legroom. The plane is quite full, juice and papers handed out, door closed. Outside the window, I can see big fluffy snowflakes falling onto the collected inhabitants of Heathrow, human and machine.
The captain comes on presently and says we can't push back until the de-icing folks have arrived and done their thing. Fifteen minutes. But we should have a good tailwind so not to worry about arrival times. We, of course are not worried in the slightest, since our connecting flight is currently awaiting de-icing at LHR.
Fifteen minutes comes and goes and no de-icing. Ironically, the week before we had sat on the ramp at T4 (bound for Tel Aviv) awaiting the de-icing trucks to arrive from T1, since there aren't enough to serve BA's far-flung operations at Heathrow. I'm waiting on the driver to blame delays caused by the de-icing truck's journey from T4 to T1, but he doesn't comply with my wishes.
Fifteen minutes becomes thirty, then forty. Finally we push back exactly 65 minutes later than planned departure time. Fourth for takeoff behind various Aer Lingus and Air France rigs, then we depart to the west, turn east over the city, and vector toward the Balkans and the Black Sea.
The day before.
British Airways has re-designated flights between London and Tel Aviv as longhaul, and equipped them with Boeing 767s that have been reconfigured to include "New Club World" business class seats, curious fore-and-aft-facing pods that convert into flat "beds" in which persons of modest stature can stretch out and sleep all the way to the middle of Central Park or the Thames Embankment, depending on which TV ad you believe.
That's all well and good if (a) one is of modest stature and (b) if one can sleep on planes. I fail on both counts, which makes the NCW experience, for me, to be one of riding backwards in narrow pods, trapped against windows by the extended legs of whoever's in the next aisle seat behind (in front of?) me. True, I get to gaze at my beloved's face for five or six hours. But right now that face is not glowing with joy.
Our visit to Israel has been fine; the relatives were happy to see us and we them. It's nice (for us) to be in a country where Christmas carols and psychotic merchandising frenzies aren't in your face 24/7. Even Hanukkah in Israel is not much of a big deal - doughnuts in the bakeries, maybe some kids' parties - but nothing like "Christmukkah" (find that man and shoot him) in the US.
But our visit was only six days, six of which featured rain, and here we are back on another plane, with the prospect of several more in the days ahead. The highlight of the day has been the new terminal at Ben Gurion Airport - a vast concrete thing with a very cool waterfall-fountain feature in the central plaza. The Dan lounge (used by BA and as far as I can tell everybody else except El Al) was amazingly cramped and worn-looking despite the terminal's newness, and the boarding process at the gate resembled the third race at Santa Anita ("The flag is up… and there they go…) The flight was a half hour or so late leaving, not bad nor especially unusual for TLV. The captain comes on the speaker and it's a woman - a first (for me) riding BA.
The catering on the BA flight, as always, is nicely culturally sensitive. Shrimp starter?
I watch War of the Worlds. Right about when we discover that the aliens are dying from Martian flu, my beloved informs me that she's not feeling too hot. Maybe a cold, I suggest?
"Like one brought on by 10-hour time changes and three or four climate changes in a week? Ya think?"
I shut up and focus on the approaching joy of getting from Terminal 4 at Heathrow to the Crowne Plaza, again "won" on Priceline. For reference, the Hoppa Bus doesn't serve Terminal 4; instead one must take the train to another terminal, walk a mile or so through a chilly tunnel that's been cleverly sloped so that baggage carts don't roll straight, and then one gets to wait for the Hoppa, which at night (it will be 9 or 10 pm) runs, oh, never. I finally conclude that I would rather bear the wrath of a taxi driver denied a fare to the West End than the wrath of a sick wife going once more through Hoppa Hell. My choice, a wise one, nevertheless comes at a price. With generous tip, the cab fare to the hotel comes to almost £30.
BA 676, LHR-IST, 27 December 2005, actual 1107-1620
We've been fed the two-course BA Club breakfast, which is quite superior to US domestic first class comparables, and the movie has run its course. (Sky High if memory serves. Unmemorable.) Outside the cloud cover has holes here and there through which one can see the occasional Romanian village or whatever. Descent is due to commence in 20 minutes or thereabouts, therefore a trip to the loo is a good plan.
Mission accomplished, I wait for the FAs in the galley to put things away so I can return to my seat. One of them is a very pleasant and nicely chatty young woman; I ask her if she's returning to London today or overnighting in Istanbul. No, she replies, we're all working the return flight, including the flight deck people.
"Ah," I say. So I guess we'll see you on the return flight."
"We're returning on this plane this afternoon."
So I go into The Speech again and she's truly mystified at first but then she gets it and says, "So this is the last flight of your round-the-world trip then?" and I say yes.
"Well maybe we can talk some more about it on the return," she promises, and I go back to my seat and she continues buttoning up the galley.
Five minutes later she and the other Club FA come to our seats (we're in two middle seats, so we're both on the aisle) and hand us two little bottles of champagne (Heidseick Monopole Blue Top - poo poohed by champers snobs but quite okay when mixed with home-grown OJ three days later) and a postcard of a BA Boeing 767 (who knew?) with handwritten congratulations on completion of our RTW by all the cabin and flight deck crew members. It's a very nice touch and typical (at least in our experience) of the classy comportment of flight (and ground) staff with BA. It doesn't take a lot of effort to make good customers feel good about an airline.
Presently we land in Istanbul and taxi rapidly to the gate. We have both finished our books and we have long since exhausted the on-board reading resources, so we get off quickly in order to find a bookshop in the airport, preferably one with books in English.
Istanbul Airport, 27 December 2005, 1635-1710
We bypass the passport control/visa-from-guy-with-magnificent-moustache queues, and follow the "transit" signs to an escalator where a young guy with no magnificent moustache looks at our boarding passes and waves us upstairs.
The departures level is thronged by men wearing white towels, standing in groups, milling about, walking earnestly in some direction or another. I look closer - yep, towels, not "robes." It looks like a Turkish bath has had a fire alarm… wait, did I say Turkish bath?
Their presence remains a mystery, although I recall a bit later that the Hajj is to start in early January; maybe they're pilgrims en route to Mecca, wearing the towels in response to one of the rules of the pilgrimage. I should brush up on my Islamic basics I suppose, but there's no time to reflect on this interesting image. We've got to find books and make it to the plane on time.
And behold the bookshop next to the watch shop down by the perfume shop indeed has an excellent collection of books in English, and the price for the three selected paperbacks is not excessive considering the location. We complete our purchases, think briefly about locum or halvah acquisitions, decide against, then hustle down to the wee (but quite pleasant) BA lounge to get a quick drink before returning to the gate and our old-shoe 767.
The Terraces Lounge lady (no dragon, she) smiles and says we shouldn't dally as the flight's been called, so we gulp a coke and some juice, then head off to the gate.
We're delayed by the world's most sensitive metal detector (I'd forgotten that IST has triple-redundant security inspections) and so we're among the last to board the aircraft.
BA 677, IST-LHR, 27 December 2005, scheduled 1635-1845, actual 1740-2010
"Hiya" says the FA. Our seats are one row behind the previous ones (better view of the monitor.) OJed and watered, we're belted, doors closed, pushback, rapid taxi, zoom. As we experienced last spring, IST departures are great - Europe, Asia, Europe - bang, bang, and it's off to Merrie Olde again.
My wife's sniffles are now more pronounced, and the pressure changes are giving her sinuses fits. Fortunately her ears are not plugged, but she's getting some pain in her Eustachian channels. The day has already been long, and the prospect of another 4+ hours' flying (almost an hour longer en route westbound because of headwinds) are not helping her mood one iota.
The meal service comes and goes - pretty mediocre in fact, but we're too pooped to give much of a hoot. The movie runs - Wallace and Grommit - seen it - but we're into our books and/or trying to sleep (ha ha) in the darkened cabin. The FAs are nice but there are a ton of kids returning to the UK following the holiday (maybe a third to a half of the Club occupants?) so the crew is kept busy for quite a while. We never get around to sharing our stories but that's okay; in all honesty we want to be left alone and close our eyes.
We only make one loop of London in the LHR stack before making a bumpy landing around an hour later than scheduled. Herself sighs relief that the pressure fluctuations have stopped. Both of us are really thinking about the bed at the Crowne Plaza.
But no delay goes unpunished at Heathrow, so we pull up short of the gate and sit. And sit. The pilot comes on the speaker (by now he's an auld acquaintance not forgot) and says that our lateness means that all the 767-capable gates at T1 are occupied with other airplanes, so we'll have to wait until one of them shifts before we can deplane. I don't know if there are connecting pax on our plane, but with the late arrival/departure from IST and now this, they are probably well and truly scrod.
We watch an interesting progression of planes taxi in front of us, then after around 20 minutes we're told we can park now, so we taxi some more and finally pull up. Door open and we bid fond farewells to our sisters in flight, and a quick thank you to the skipper as we exit.
The halls of Terminal 1 are endless and as usual we get in line behind the party of most-poorly-documented aliens in the passport queue. Fortunately the immigration person does not notice the entry stamp from the previous night, so we are admitted once more to the UK and admonished in ink not to rely on public financial support.
We stop at the Boots branch to stock herself up on cold and flu nostrums, then there are further stops for socks and ladies' unmentionables, required because no laundry is washable at the Crowne Plaza due to broken self-serve laundry facilities in addition to Bank Holiday-taking housekeeping staff. (Hand washing in this weather means damp knickers - ugh.) So we end up presenting ourselves at the bus counter for Hoppa tickets sometime around 9.
The Hoppa bus stop at T1 is in a tunnel that is cold, smelly, and dank, and contaminated by cigarette smoke that hangs like London Fog over the tired, grumpy Hoppites. It is close to a final straw for my respiration-challenged wife. I am feeling like a true evildoer, but she's soldiering on marvelously.
The right Hoppa finally appears and we pile in for our 20-minute ride through the dark airport region until we disembark at the Crowne Plaza and make our way to our still-cold room. Candy bars and cokes bought at T1 (during sock shopping interludes) are consumed and bed is crashed into, accompanied by sneezes, coughs and the usual sounds of misery. On the TV we watch stories about rocket attacks in the north of Israel. Was that only yesterday?
The end of Turkey Day comes around 11 o'clock, but sleep is not especially restful. I am feeling like a worm, thinking of the days ahead.
28 December 2005, LHR-BOS, AA 109, 10:30-1310
"Promise me that you won't suggest something like this again," she asks as we ride the f-ing Hoppa one more time to Heathrow in the morning.
"I promise." Lord, do I promise.
We were both awake around 5 (7 in Israel) so the night was fairly short as well as cold and restless. Fortunately today the clock will be working with us, so we ought to get some decent rest in Boston (back at the Hyatt) since the 7-hour flight will be offset by a five-hour time zone shift.
The American Airlines lounge in Terminal 3 at Heathrow is no great shakes, especially when compared to British Airways' various lounges in other terminals, but it's a far sight better than the mobs inhabiting the gate areas. We drink orange juice and jug coffee, then finally make our way to the gate where there's nowhere to sit and where two Indian ladies - who look like they're having no fun whatsoever - perform desultory random inspections of carryon baggage.
Finally we board; we're in the last row in the business class cabin, which is just fine - the seats recline comfortably and the service provided by AA is first rate, even if the food and entertainment offerings are only so-so. My wife manages to fall asleep quickly and sleeps for a good portion of the flight. I was concerned for her sinuses, but once more the bullet is dodged.
We land in Boston on time, but have to wait at the gate for 20 minutes because AA doesn't have a spare gate agent that can process an international arrival (??) and the pilot is plainly exasperated in his announcements while we wait. Nonetheless we get to the bag claim quickly and our priority-tagged bags are virtually the first off, so we're at the bus stop and at the Hyatt quickly.
Quickly is good, because the up-and-down business has done herself no good. She gets into bed, I prepare a series of cups of tea; we order room service for dinner and it's lights out at 8:30 (1:30 am in London.)
29 December 2005 - BOS-DFW-SNA
We're both awake at 3 am (8 in London, 10 in Israel) and she rolls over and says she's reeely not feeling good and could I do anything to get to California quicker (e.g. nonstop) or could we stay an extra day in Boston so she can rest up and feel better.
I doubt there's anything available sooner than our 9 am departure but I say I'll check. I log onto the American website and determine that no, there's nothing else, so I tell her to go back to bed and we'll try to get some more sleep before getting up.
Almost as an afterthought I check our status for 9:00 and discover that I've put 9:00 into my Palm Pilot, but that our actual reservations are for the Dallas flight departing at 7:40 am. Oh crap, if we'd waited for the 6 am wakeup call I'd booked the previous evening we'd have missed the flight, and the next one we could get on would probably be after New Years. Thank God for jetlag. Honey, I've got good news and bad news…
Boston airport is its usual charming self - shoe carnival, snarly TSA inspectors, lounge dragons denying access to the AA lounge (American's lounge "admit policies" are truly silly, made sillier in view of the lounges' general mediocrity.) However the newsstand on the American pier sells high-octane cold meds so a couple of pills later she's ready for another day flying (no pun intended.)
The flights are okay, DFW airport is mobbed but we find places to sit while awaiting our plane, and eventually we arrive in southern California. I've noted in passing that according to my calculations we both achieve Executive Platinum status somewhere over Oklahoma, but by now the whole justification for the trip seems distant and obscure. She's in some kind of decongestant-fueled alternate universe. I am Señor Guilt.
Rental car obtained, we get to our hotel near my stepfather's house, where we'll spend the rest of the year. I settle her in the room (which has a kitchenette) and then go off to a nearby supermarket for juice, fruit, tea and Kleenex. We visit briefly on the phone with family members including our son who works in LA, then have an early dinner and are both in bed by 9 (midnight in Boston, 5 am in London, 7 am in Israel.) Her cough is serious-sounding and I contemplate phoning a doctor, but she waves me off.
"Just promise again to me," she says, as we lie in bed, "that you won't plan something like this again."
"I promise," I answer. And I mean it.
* * *
Epilogue - Seattle, 4 January 2006.
Our EXP status appeared 3 days later in our online AAdvantage account records. She's still sick.
* * *
Travel and mileage and status, oh my. We try to obtain status with airlines so that the travel we have to do, or want to do, can be as comfortable and rewarding as possible under the circumstances. Certainly our two weeks in December were not as challenging or as taxing as the schedules imposed again and again on true road warriors, or by those who do mileage runs as annual rituals.
But for us, this has been something of a revelation. Maybe in a few months when the benefits of our new status really kick in, and when flying sick is no longer an issue, maybe then we'll look back on the last couple of weeks and say it was really not that bad. Okay, even. But right now the balance sheet is negative, and we're going to need some recovery time.
Thirty-odd years ago I spent a patch where my employer sent me from San Francisco to Los Angeles four days out of five - down on the 7:30 am flight, back on the 6:30; repeat. For eight weeks I did this and at the end could laugh about it.
I was 20-something. Young and dumb.
No more. No more Turkey Days for this old flyer.