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Hot and Cold: LHR - ORD - MSY - ORD - LHR with BA, UA and Amtrak (pics)

Hot and Cold: LHR - ORD - MSY - ORD - LHR with BA, UA and Amtrak (pics)

Old Mar 29, 11, 8:39 am
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Hot and Cold: LHR - ORD - MSY - ORD - LHR with BA, UA and Amtrak (pics)

Hello there! This is my first attempt at a trip report. Hopefully I’ve not been too rambling, and the mix of carriers, classes, and modes of transport should keep it from being too dull.

The joy of shifts: every so often, my work lumbers me with a week of night shifts - but it’s not all bad: it means I get the next 9 days off, without having to take any leave. They get planned months in advance - so last September, my girlfriend pointed out to me that I’d have the week of Shrove Tuesday off, and in New Orleans, that means Mardi Gras, and there was a BA sale on… Well, things fell into place rather nicely for a bit of a holiday early in the year. For the dates we wanted, a return to ORD was cheap - and somewhere I quite wanted to visit, as well as being not too far out the way. And the night shifts would mean I’d already be roughly in the right time zone. So we got booking!

Last edited by teflon; Mar 29, 11 at 8:56 am Reason: adding an index
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Old Mar 29, 11, 8:40 am
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BA295: London LHR - Chicago ORD
4th March 2011
World Traveller
Boeing 747-400

When I used to live up at the other end of the Piccadilly Line, I'd occasionally worry about falling asleep on my way home from a night shift and waking up in Cockfosters. This time round, I had to be careful about dozing off, going round the Heathrow loop and still ending up at Cockfosters. Thankfully, the journey was mostly above ground, so the daylight kept me awake, and I made it from the office to the check-in area in an hour flat. (Tube trivia: my journey took me from London Underground's newest station to its second newest).

BA's seating policy offers free choice to status passengers from the time of booking, but lowly Blues have the choice of paying for it, or waiting until online check-in opens. I'd had my eye on one of the window/aisle pairs towards the back of the 747 (the layout is otherwise 3-4-3, until the fuselage starts to narrow), and it was thankfully still available at T-24. There was the small hitch that I was fast asleep when check-in opened, but I set the alarm clock and used the BA Android app to successfully select seats, and download a mobile boarding pass.

Looking down at the arrivals level from Departures

A cup of tea later, and my girlfriend arrived, somewhat chuffed that she'd managed to get her boarding pass on her phone too. We were through South security in no time at all, and I'd been hoping to sign us up for the UK Border Agency's IRIS fast-track immigration scheme, but the registration room was closed. The departures board was showing a B-gate departure, so despite the temptation of trying Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food, we thought we'd head over on the transit before getting some breakfast. Turns out this was a bit of a schoolboy error: for those of us who aren't lounge-lubbers, T5B can only offer a tiny Wetherspoons (with some sad-looking pastries), and a branch of coffee shop chain Apostrophe. They did have bacon sarnies on the menu, but none left, so we settled for their overpriced Danishes instead.

G-BNLP at T5B. Ready to Fly, as BA like to say.

Checking the seat map overnight, I'd noticed it was still looking fairly open, and I'd been hoping to ask nicely on board if I could nab an empty middle four for myself to get a bit of a nap. Annoyingly, someone in the row in front caught the attention of an attendant first, and within a few seconds of his reply ("I think the doors are closed - feel free to spread out a bit"), all the empty blocks were taken. You snooze you loose. At least I could sleep undisturbed in my window seat, and my girlfriend could get up for a wander without bothering anyone.

During the drinks run, I asked if I could have an eye mask - they're no longer supplied as standard - but it took its time to arrive. As it hadn't by the time the lunch service came around, I thought I might as well have something to eat. I chose what was announced as a new option, pasta with cajun chicken, which was reasonably tasty. My girlfriend had ordered the VLML, which arrived first, but I'm afraid I can't quite remember what it was, or what the other standard option was.

BA WT meal. S'alright.

I dropped off soon after, and was woken up a short time later by an FA handing me an eye mask. Thanks.

After a few hours' sleep, I woke up to find the cabin in darkness - apparently the crew dimmed the lights and closed the windowshades, and quite a few people were asleep, despite it being daytime in both London and Chicago. My girlfriend likened it to people going into hospital and changing into their pyjamas and getting into bed even when there's not a lot wrong with them.

WT cabin, late on in the flight.

I'd already seen most of the new films I might have wanted to see on the AVOD system, so sat back to watch The Big Lebowski, and discovered that my screen was on the blink. I wandered down to the galley to ask them if they could reset it (even though it looked an awful lot like a loose cable somewhere), and also if it would be possible to have a snack of some sort. I was expecting some of the birdseed they hand out on shorthaul flights, but was told that they only stock snacks on longer flights, so I left empty-handed. The reset didn't do the trick, so since the girlfriend was ensconced in a book, I swapped seats with her and continued to watch The Dude.

The afternoon snack service appeared pretty late in the flight, only about 45 minutes before landing. It felt pretty rushed, and I'd barely gulped down my cup of tea before the final call for the loos. Perhaps they leave it so late because of ORD's reputation for air traffic control delays - and we had none on our flight and landed more or less to time.

Multipurpose special meal for my girlfriend, which was dropped into my lap, since I was in its intended seat.

I can't remember what, if anything, wasn't vegetarian about this.

Overall, I'd probably rate the service as a bit perfunctory. Granted, I slept through a lot of it, but from what I saw it wasn't bad, nor was it outstanding. We had a warm welcome when boarding and in all the announcements, but I would have expected a little more from BA on the in-cabin service.
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Old Mar 29, 11, 8:40 am
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UA7587: Chicago (ORD) - New Orleans (MSY)
Operated by Republic Airways for United Express
4th March 2011
Embraer 170/Q

It's a good job we weren't in a hurry to make a connection at ORD - being at the back of the bus meant we were at the back of the queue for immigration, which took a good 45 minutes. Queue-management people occasionally took groups of people out to the other immigration hall, and we were eventually seen at the crew-only desk. (The guard was quite cheerful, but said they weren't normally keen on taking regular passengers, in case 30 crew turned up at once.)

I had a choice of two similiarly-priced flights to New Orleans - neither of which were particularly conveniently timed for our arrival. One was with AA, which would have have allowed us tag our bags all the way to MSY; the other was with UA, which departed an hour later. I'd recently obtained a BD *Silver card via my employer's corporate travel department, so being a tight Scotsman, I jumped at the opportunity to save $50 on baggage fees and plumped for the UA option.

This, however, did mean we had 6 hours to kill.

We checked our bags in at the United counter just after customs. Rather than re-tagging our bags, they re-used the tracking numbers, and stuck a handwritten sticker over the destination, which isn't something I'd seen before.

I'd read on the what to do in ORD thread that 6 hours wasn't quite enough time to get into the city and back, but that the Gaslight Club was worth a visit, so we took the shuttle to Terminal 2 and through the bowels of the Hilton to a curiously incongruous bar which was apparently the inspiration for the Playboy Club.

Not bad for an airport bar. The chandelier apparently came from a German castle.

While the food comes highly rated, it looked a bit heavy for what we were after, so after a couple of drinks we walked back over to T1, through fast track security, and found something a bit lighter (if not tastier) in Chillis.

And then to the gate. United now have a system called EasyInfo - enhanced displays at their gates, which scroll through various pages of flight information, as well as numbers of seats sold; checked in; and people waiting for upgrades and standby. We watched the various stages of this for the flight before ours (while trying to ignore Piers Morgan interviewing Charlie Sheen on CNN on the adjacent TV) - then eventually it flicked over to telling us that the next flight from that gate was at 6.30am. I assume at some point they would announce our flight's gate change over the PA, but we found out about it thanks to a girl sat opposite us who got an automated message on her phone.

Round the corner at the new gate, the EasyInfo was telling us that, as well as an ever-increasing delay, the number of people on the standby list was over 30 (for a 70-seater aircraft). The gate agent did ask for anyone with "some flexibility in their travel plans", and we were both so tired at that point that it was very tempting to become VDBs - they were offering a seat on one of the next morning's flights, accommodation, and a $400 travel voucher. We were debating haggling them for cash rather than vouchers, but they were only looking for one or two people, and I think they got their volunteers pretty quickly.

The flight eventually boarded some two hours late. There were no apologies from the ground staff, and the EasyInfo display unhelpfully told us "Delay reason: aircraft delayed". Priority boarding was in operation though, with *Silver coming between UA's elites and the general hordes, and I appreciated the chance to get our bags into the overhead bins before everyone else with their rollaboards.

Leather seats - and 0.75" wider than BA's Y. Though despite the large portholes, none of the seats in Y appeared to align with the windows - perhaps due to the Economy Plus rows' larger seat pitch?

I'm afraid I don't really remember much more about the flight, because I was out like a light pretty much as soon as the wheels left the ground. All I really remember is the FA's warm announcement as we were taxiing to the gate, and his curious description of New Orleans as "the city that stands alone". And he did apologise for the delay - we landed at around 1.30am.

After a reasonably quick cab ride (shared with a family also heading to the French Quarter - it's a flat $15 a head from the airport to the city, so it makes sense for the driver to get a full car), we arrived at our hotel 24 hours after I left work. I texted a colleague from the early shift to let him know, and he told me "you'll have gone mad at this point, so don't pick up any sharp objects or touch any animals".
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Old Mar 29, 11, 8:41 am
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New Orleans

We stayed in the Empress Hotel in the Tremé - which describes itself as a European-style hotel; I think they may mean hostel. You get a bed, and a table, and a badly-mounted TV. Perhaps you can pay extra for a window without frosted glass. It wasn't particularly cheap, but it was one of the cheapest deals going, and it did the job. Certainly not worth writing home about.

The city though? It's a real party town, and I got the impression it's a bit like that all year round, not just at Mardi Gras.

Recommended: Historic New Orleans Tours' French Quarter walking tour, the Katrina and Beyond exhibit at the Presbytere. Pretty much everything we ate, too. Not recommended: absinthe. Followed by chartreuse.

The party starts early on Mardi Gras itself - people were dancing and drinking outside the Backstreet Cultural Museum by 8.30. Apparently at midnight, they clear Bourbon Street with mounted police and street sweepers.

You can lots more of my photos over on flickr
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Old Mar 29, 11, 8:42 am
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Amtrak train 58: New Orleans (NOL) - Chicago (CHI)
8th March 2011
Amtrak Superliner

Yes, I know this is Flyertalk, and this leg of the journey is clearly a train. But it's got an upper deck, and you get served a nice meal on it, and you can convert your seat into a bed. Surely that counts?

Getting to the station was a bit of an adventure - the hotel receptionist doubted our ability to walk, so called us a taxi - which made it about four blocks before getting stuck on the wrong side of a parade. We ended up walking most of the way back to the hotel and back again before finding some way to cross it, and then the remaining distance to the station.

There's approximately bugger all in the station - it only sees three trains a day, so there's nothing to do but sit around until boarding. Sleeper passengers get to board first; passengers in the cheap seats don't even get reservations, so their queue formed early, and made it a bit tricky to work out where the priority boarders were meant to stand in the melée.

We'd booked a 'roomette' - a pair of facing seats next to a window, which convert into a bed, and with an upper bunk that folds down from the wall. There were around a dozen of these compartments in our part of the train, with a central aisle. Elsewhere in the carriage are larger rooms for three people, and downstairs, toilets, showers, and larger rooms with en-suite showers.

Amtrak Superliner Roomette

Sleeper tickets include meals, and as our 19-hour journey left at 2pm, that meant dinner and breakfast. The conductor came round to check tickets and mentioned that the dining car host would be around at 4pm to take dinner reservations, so in the meantime we bought some lunch from the cafe car. I had a turkey and swiss sandwich; my notes here say it was 'horrible'.

Sightseeing car. Presumably there's more to see on sunnier days - we had torrential rain and thunderstorms.

The sittings for dinner started fairly early, at 5pm. We asked for something later, and were offered 7.45pm, but were told that it might mean that some choices would have sold out. We were also told that "it's community seating, so you'll be sitting with some Amtrak friends”, which is a wonderfully American turn of phrase.

This being Flyertalk, you'll probably want to know the menu - Amtrak helpfully have a PDF of it online. We both ordered the crab cakes - but they were, indeed, sold out, so had the catch of the day instead, which was sea bass. I had some ice cream for dessert; my girlfriend had the cheesecake - and we were very satisfied all round.

Converting the seats into beds was a little confusing, but the sleeping car host cheerfully did it for us. I slept pretty soundly, though woke up a little earlier than I'd have liked, possibly because of some station stops. Breakfast was served from 6am - 7.15, and they only made one call, shortly before 7. The (otherwise friendly) dining car hosts were quite strict about enforcing the 7.15 cut-off, and turned a few people away as I was enjoying my French toast.

The shower was better than I'd been expecting, and it was the first time I'd taken one on a moving vehicle. I think I may have accidentally given another passenger an eyeful by forgetting to lock the door, though. (Incidentally, unlike sleeper cars I've been on in Europe, the berths could only be locked from the inside - so there's a bit of trust in your fellow passengers when leaving it for other parts of the train).

The train arrived in Chicago more or less on time. Getting into the station requires an odd three-point-turn manoeuvre to reverse into the train shed, and they seemed fairly keen that passengers stayed in their seats while that was taking place. It struck me as being not unlike the seatbelt sign being on for landing.

I felt well looked-after on the journey. The staff all seemed like they enjoyed what they were doing, despite their shifts appearing to last the whole length of the journey. The seats were comfortable - and even wide enough for us to both sit on, side-by-side. After converting the lower seat to a bed, there's a mattress for it too, so it's even more comfortable to sleep on. And it was good value for money too - at $320, it was cheaper than flying, never mind a hotel room. If you're not in a hurry, I'd definitely recommend it.
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Old Mar 29, 11, 8:42 am
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The wizards of Priceline found me a nice deal in the Wyndham Blake, in the south Loop. Handy for Union Station, the L, the museums, and plenty more. We arrived at 9.30am, and they had no problems checking us in early. I'd been aiming to stay more towards the Magnificent Mile, but was perfectly happy with what we'd ended up with. The rate even included a continental breakfast buffet - tea, coffee, juice, muffins, and huge but tasteless apples.

We had a bit of a more relaxing time, wandering round museums, and on the Trolley and Double Decker sightseeing tour - which was pretty underwhelming, really. (There weren't many Architecture Foundation tours on at convenient times, sadly.) The Chicago History Museum was worth the visit, though, and Kuma's Corner provided awesome burgers - though if you're going, expect it to be busy or to have to sit at the bar.

We missed the St Patrick's parade - it doesn't seem to last very long - but did see an awful lot of people wearing green for the occasion. We did get a chance to meet up with one of my girlfriend's friends from school though, and took her for lunch at Giordano's for something that claimed to be pizza. (It's tasty, but I'm not sure it really qualifies for the name.)

More photos on flickr
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Old Mar 29, 11, 8:44 am
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BA296: Chicago ORD - London LHR
12th March 2011
Club World
Boeing 777-222 (G-VIIX, with New First - for those who are keeping track)

The regular visitor to the FT BA board know that using your BA miles for a straightforward redemption isn't very good value for money. You still have to pay UK taxes and BA's fuel surcharges, and don't earn any more miles for the flight. The savvy traveller books a cheap World Traveller Plus fare, and uses miles to upgrade it to Club World, paying only the difference in Air Passenger Duty. And that's what this savvy traveller did. I'd managed to scrape together enough miles from converting Tesco vouchers; an ex-gratia award from the Unite union's first threatened strike in late 2009; and even a few from flying, to upgrade the inbound leg of the journey - after first paying to upgrade it to WTP from a sale WT fare. The first time in J for the both of us, I should add.

We took the CTA blue line to O'Hare, and after getting a little confused by the signage in Terminal 2, found the BA check-in area in Terminal 5 (tip: from the subway, your best route to the transit to T5 is through the basement level of the Hilton). No queues at the Club check-in, and a warm welcome from the desk agent, who seemed a little confused that we wanted to check our bags in and might not want them on board. She gave us directions to the lounge, and explained that it was adjacent to the usual gate from the flight, but we'd be leaving from a different gate.

There wasn't any sign of a priority line at security, but no long wait either. Just a baffling array of signs, including one informing us that the TSA didn't endorse any of the products or services which we might happen to see in the security screening area: it turns out that this refers to the luggage adverts now in the bag trays.

The BA Terraces lounge at ORD is a little gloomy, thanks in part to a lack of windows. A decent looking bar, and a plate of rather sad looking sandwiches were available. But as our flight was the late service to London, it's designated as a Sleeper service, and passengers are expected to have supper in the lounge.

So, menu time!
Pre Flight Supper North America

Broccoli Cheddar

Organic Mixed Greens, Cucumbers, Grape Tomatoes, Calamata Olives
Baby Spinach with Roasted Beets, Goat Cheese and Toasted Almonds
Potato Salad with Pancetta and Caramelised Onions
Roasted Cauliflower and Radiccio Salad
Proscuitto Roasted Salmon with Fennel & Lemon

Five bean Butterbean Squash Chilli with Basmati Rice
Chicken Jalfrezi, Basmati Rice, Cilantro Chutney
Herb Crusted Tilapia with Preserved Lemon Vinaigrette & Balsamic Glaze

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Pumpkin Cheesecake
Fruit Salad
Selection of Fine Cheeses

The dining room is a self-service affair, and the mains did look a little like they'd been under the hot-lamp for a little too long. The chilli seemed like a sensible option, and it wasn't spectacular, but actually tasted of something, so I suppose was an improvement on eating at altitude. I nabbed a few bits of the naan bread from the curry to go with it. I'm also not sure that the cheeses necessarily counted as 'fine', but I enjoyed them nonetheless.

The Club World cabin on the 777-200 isn't well-liked on FlyerTalk, and I can see why. Eight suites across the aircraft, set out (like on the rest of their aircraft) in a yin-yang configuration - and with six rows of them, it's earned the nickname 'the flying dorm'. However, I'd had my eyes on 15E&F, the rear-facing middle pair at the back of the cabin, and the seat-assignment gods looked kindly on us, and had already allocated it to us when online check-in opened. It's got a cosy little feel to it, and has the advantage that you don't have anyone's legs to step over to get to the loo.

Boarding was pretty swift (if a few minutes late), and despite the hordes of World Traveller passengers massed around the gate, priority boarding was in operation. Pre-flight beverages - water, orange juice, and champagne - were offered, and it seemed rude not to enjoy a glass of fizz. Sadly, we got lucky with a departure slot, and my glass was snatched away from me before I'd had a chance to finish it.

After take-off, we were handed menus and amenity kits and hot towels were offered too.

A mug of hot chocolate and a copy of the Independent. I see why people say stepping onto a BA plane is a bit like being home already.

Settle down with a NightCap to help you sleeep
Salad of chicken with garam masala and mango chutney
Asparagus risotto

Chocolate and praline layer cake with fresh berries

Alternatively may we suggest hot chocolate with warm chocolate chip cookies

Your choice of coffee, tea or selection of herbal teas including green tea with jasmine, peppermint, blackcurrant and camomile with honey

Please accept our apology if your first choice is not available

Club Kitchen
Please visit the galley area in between meal services, where light snacks and drinks will be available. Please ask the crew for drinks not on display.
If seated in the upper deck, you can visit the Club Kitchen downstairs.
I had, as with the outbound flight, been planning to get some sleep straight away, but the offer of a cup of hot chocolate and some cookies was too tempting to pass up. The cabin was completely full, so that meant it took a while for me to be served, but it was worth the wait! (I passed the time watching BBC World News on the AVOD system - American TV news having told me next to nothing about to earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It appeared to have been recorded at 0200 GMT the previous day, so only about 24 hours out of date, which isn't such a bad turnaround time as these things go, since they can probably only load new programmes in London.)


I folded the bed flat, and the next thing I remembered was my girlfriend waking me up to ask if I'd like breakfast. I'd been planning to wait until I got to the arrivals lounge, and tried dozing off again, but the sound of clinking cutlery and the thought of proper bacon kept me awake.

Breakfast in Bed
Chilled fruit juice
An energising fruit smoothie
Fresh seasonal fruit
Fruit yoghurt
Warm bacon roll served with tomato ketchup
Selection of warm breads and breakfast pastries
Your choice of coffee or tea

Despite having missed the first round of service, next time I saw an FA, it was no problem for a cup of tea and a bacon roll - and a surprise plate of fruit too. (I think there may normally be a pastry perched on the edge of the plate)

Unlike, say, the BMI breakfast panini, which is thermonucleated in a microwave while still inside a plastic bag, the bacon gave the impression of having been cooked in a separate process from the warming of the roll, to pleasing effect.

My girlfriend was very pleased with her veggie breakfast, which as well as the fruit plate and toast, included a "hot element" of a roll with roasted peppers. If we're being picky, I was a little disappointed with it being served in its foil tray, but I didn't hear any complaints from her!

One downside of our little cocoon in the middle of the aircraft is that there's no chance of seeing the lovely approach to LHR, which often takes you on a magnificent sightseeing tour of the city. I think the rest of the service definitely made up for it. Nothing seemed like it was too much of a problem for the crew, and most of them served us by coming around the bulkhead, rather than lowering the privacy screen and stretching across our neighbours (as I believe is policy). Being in the middle two seats, there were some occasions where one of us would be served before the other, but none of the FAs had problems if we tried ordering from the 'wrong' side.

I found the seat to be reasonably comfortable, when folded flat - perhaps I'd just not held the button down long enough, but it did seem a little bumpy in places. Still better than anything else I'd slept on while airborne. The only real discomfort was groggily bashing my head on an open overhead locker, but I suppose I've only got myself to blame for that.

After landing at the B gates, we followed the FT advice to take the lifts, not the escalators, and nearly made it to the first transit through to immigration. There weren't any queues at passport control and, for those who are taking notes, IRIS was in operation, and I saw a few people successfully using it. We beat our bags to the carousel by about a minute, and made a beeline for the arrivals lounge.

It was our first visit there, and I hadn't quite prepared myself for the number of times you have to present your boarding pass: at the front desk; at the left luggage counter; almost at the front desk again; and then when asking for a shower. I'd been forewarned about the strange gurgling noise which emits from the drain in the showers, but hadn't quite expected it to sound like there was a small (albeit happy) pig down there.

So onwards to the buffet breakfast, which was quite a good spread of cooked and cold items, and an intriguing pancake machine, which I wasn't brave enough to try following a recent mishap with a waffle iron in a hotel in Norway. Elsewhere, there were TVs showing various news channels (with the sound down), and comfy sofas draped with flyers who were probably BA golds who'd slummed it overnight in economy.

It's a nice way to finish off your journey, and the chance to have a shower to refresh yourself before the joys of the tube home isn't something to be underestimated. I just worry that, like flying Business class, I might get a taste for that kind of thing. I understand it can get a little addictive!

Last edited by teflon; Mar 29, 11 at 11:55 am
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Old Mar 29, 11, 8:47 am
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I emailed BA to let them know about the broken IFE on the outbound flight, in case they didn't pick it up in routine maintenance. The next day, they emailed back to apologise that the recent bad weather meant it had taken them longer than usual to reply to my comment, and as a gesture of goodwill, credited my account with 10,000 BA Miles. Which was nice.

As is apparently standard with MFU bookings, the two legs with BA posted as 0 Miles and 0 Tier Points, so this required a phone call and 7 working days to be resolved.

(Eventual) miles total: 18888 BA Miles & 105 Tier Points; 1048 BMI Destination Miles & 838 Status Mules

And the crew on our flight home got a thank you via ba.com/welldone.
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Old Mar 29, 11, 11:51 am
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Excellent report. Really enjoyed reading it! Thank you for posting it^
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Old Mar 29, 11, 2:00 pm
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Right on. Good read.
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Old Mar 29, 11, 2:19 pm
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I very much enjoyed this report, even if I had to look up what "chuffed" meant. I'm glad you included your Amtrak segment, I'm a big fan of long distance train travel and this one looked fun.

Oh and while "Aircraft Delayed" on the UA Departure Boards may sound stupid, what it means is "Inbound Aircraft Delayed". They just phrase it badly.
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Old Mar 29, 11, 2:30 pm
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Nice trip report and great photography! ^
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Old Mar 29, 11, 3:12 pm
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Nice job! Thanks!
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Old Mar 29, 11, 11:09 pm
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I really enjoyed reading this report, I love your writing style, teflon

Sadly, BA's breakfast offering is pretty poor but at least the fruit was plated for you rather than arriving in a ghastly plastic container. Great to see you worked the seating policy to your advantage ^
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Old Mar 30, 11, 4:37 am
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Originally Posted by teflon View Post
teflon, this is a most fantastic photo, the light is amazing, you've really conveyed the 'cosiness' of your pair of seats.

I think that you have a great eye for photography and you've really balanced the report well, by not including too many photos. What camera do you use?
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