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TheFlyingDoctor Mar 25, 12 12:33 pm

One Seat, two classes: BA LGW to FCO in ET and CE (first taste of club!)
Part I: The Best Made Plans...

Under the expert guidance of the FlyerTalk forums, I've slowly been wrapping my head around the intricacies of BA's Executive Club programme, and although I fell short in 2011/12, with a bit of extra effort I think I can make a stab at attaining status this year. One of the easier ways to accumulate the oh-so-important tier points is travelling in Club Europe via proactive online upgrade offers, although such offers are not guaranteed to be made. Fortunately for this trip the POUG immediately came into play at a reasonable-sounding price, so I'd be getting my first taste of Club - although only on the way back! As it transpired, I was able to grab the same seat (4A) for both flights, so in scientific fashion I'd be able to control all the other variables and assess just how much difference flying business class makes.

However, I'm getting ahead of myself, as the actual flights are often the simplest part of my travels. As a Bristolian, to fly BA I must first cover the 120 miles or so to London. This time around, I'd have a corresponding challenge at the other end: landing at Rome's Fiumicino airport would put me almost the same distance from my ultimate goal, Assisi in Umbria. Since I don't drive, that meant I'd mostly be spending my time on trains...

Booking for rail in the UK is something I'm entirely familiar with, but I hadn't attempted an international train ticket order for five years or so. A quick consultation of the invaluable man in seat 61 directed me to Trenitalia's site, which is easy enough to get timetable information from, but seemed reluctant to offer me tickets for many journeys. This turned out to be an issue with regional trains only being bookable within 7 days of travel, which felt too risky for me. I had dim memories of using RailEurope before, which is designed for UK purchasers, but (armed with my knowledge from Trenitalia) clearly has a terrible algorithm for journey selection. I'm not entirely sure what it's doing, but presumably in an effort to keep things simple for us clueless tourists, if it can't find identical ticket types for both halves of a return journey, it simply pretends trains don't exist. In my case, for Rome to Assisi it therefore initially insisted on routings with changes at intermediate stations, and at times that were deeply incompatible with BA's flights. It'd also cheerfully take Rome airport as a starting location, but then show tickets starting from Roma Termini - 30 minutes away, by a train that only runs every half hour, which would be more than enough time to unwittingly miss a connection even without flight delays.

However, by making two entirely separate bookings of single tickets I was not only able to get direct trains at reasonable times, but didn't seem to get gouged on price, either. Opting for first class only added a few pounds to fares that were already highly competitive against similar length journeys in the UK. I did end up with quite a lot of slack on the return trip between arriving in Rome and the flight out, but as that leg would be in Club I'd be able to make a thorough inventory of the BA lounge during those hours, which was entirely acceptable to me!

These, then, would be my schedules to cover the innocent-sounding 920 miles or so, clocking in at over 13 and 15 hours respectively:

Outbound (Sunday 18th March)
08:00 Feet: Walk to Bristol Temple Meads (2 miles) (Work boots)
08:45 Train: First Great Western Bristol Temple Meads to Reading (due 09:58) (standard class)
10:24 Train: South West Trains Reading to Clapham Junction (due 11:37) (standard class)
11:53 Train: Southern Clapham Junction to Gatwick Airport (due 12:27) (standard class)
14:20 Plane: British Airways London Gatwick (LGW) to Rome Fiumicino (FCO) (due 17:40 local time) (Euro Traveller)
Unknown Train: Leonardo Express Roma Aeroporto to Roma Termini (1st classs)
19:55 Train: Train Italia Domestic Roma Termini to Assisi (due 21:46) (1st class)
21:46 Feet: Walk to 'La Cittadella', Assisi (1.5 miles) (Work boots)

Inbound (Thursday 22nd March)
10:30 Feet: Walk to Assisi railway station (1.5 miles) (work boots)
11:24 Train: European Train Assisi to Roma Termini (due 13:47) (1st class)
Unknown Train: Leonardo Express Roma Termini to Roma Aeroporto (1st class)
18:25 Plane: British Airways Rome Fiumicino (FCO) to London Gatwick (LGW) (due 20:00 local time) (Club Europe)
21:03 Train: First Great Western Gatwick Airport to Reading (due 22:19) (standard class)
22:49 Train: First Great Western Reading to Bristol Temple Meads (due 00:32) (standard class)
00:32 Taxi: Bristol Temple Meads to home.

Or at least, so I thought...

TheFlyingDoctor Mar 25, 12 12:51 pm

Part II: Bristol to Assisi

The very first phase of Sunday went according to plan, but on arrival at Temple Meads I found the 08:45 was already listing a 19 minute delay. Worse was to come when I made it to platform 15 (why is the most popular service placed as far as possible from the entrance?), where I discovered that the heating for my carriage was broken. That said, it wasn't too cold, and with the occupant of the seat next to mine deciding to seek out a warmer environment, I was happy enough to stick with a double to myself. Assuming, of course, we'd ever get going...

Eventually the missing staff member required makes it to the train, and we set off with a promise that we can regain 12 minutes that would otherwise have been spent idling at Swindon anyway (today we're taking some strange routing through Parkway instead of Bath). That happens, but it's no help - we
were subsequently doubly afflicted with slow downs for engineering works, and a stopping train that we'd managed to get stuck behind. There are few things that I find more frustrating than being parked within visual range of a station, counting off the minutes until your connection will be gone; with half a dozen follow-on trains and flights (not to mention accomodation and conference booking) at risk, it's particularly excruciating today. I step out on to the platform at 10:24:34 - and discover that whilst most of the Reading departure board is a pick-and-mix assortment of delays and cancellations, my 10:24 was one of the few to get out exactly when it should.

The next fastest option would be to stick to my original routing via Clapham Junction, but that train was cancelled, so I would now be wating for the 11:03 to Redhill, where, I was told, I could connect to Gatwick. On that I find a poster warning that engineering works would be affecting weekend services around Reading until 2015 - as in, three years from now, not quarter past 8 - and so a new rule was solemnly jotted down in my travel notepad- no attempting multi-train services in the area on a Sunday again!

The train to Redhill trundles at an uninspiring pace, and is a lot less comfortable than the Bristol-Paddington service I'd started on - although to be fair the Clapham Junction service may have been no more impressive. When I arrive, I'm greeted by dire warnings that almost all FGW services to Gatwick from Redhill are cancelled, but there may be services from another company. This is indeed the case, but can only be found by examining departure boards on the appropriate platform, which is on a different island to the arrival one. Having spent a few days in a country where I don't speak the language, I'm perhaps more attuned to this than usual, but I really wonder how a non-English speaker would have found their way to the right platform: would it hurt to put a logo of an airplane on it?
Leg room on the Bristol-Reading and Reading-Redhill services- good, and not so good!

At said platform I'm yet again facing a delayed train, but the pressure is taken off somewhat as the BA app is informing me that my flight will also be late off the ground. Once at Gatwick I head straight for security, as I'm checked in and hand-luggage only. There I think uncharitable thoughts about my fellow travellers: from the mob of people loitering outside - but apparently not yet wanting to enter - security; via the family who seemed to think that the new style body scanners (which weren't even present) would be able to detect that the colour of their underwear didn't match; to the half dozen people in front who apparently couldn't grasp the cause-and-effect of "if you take metal through the metal detector, you will have to checked".

One possible upside was that the staff (perhaps having long since given up on getting someone through without a beep) let me attempt it with both my shoes and (ceramic) watch on: neither feature enough metal to trigger, but I invariably find myself being asked to remove them as they look like they might.

Finally airside, the delay is still in effect and thus I have time to grab something to eat from the suitably named "EAT" (will they branch out into bars called "DRINK"? or perhaps an all-encompassing "CONSUME"?) before finding the relevant gate. By 14:20, our original departure time, I - and everyone else- is still sitting there, but we get the call to board not long after.

I forget exactly when we got airborne, as I was too busy feeling smug that my seat selection had worked out as hoped. BA's flights to Europe can be configured for varying size club cabins, so the first 10 (I think?) rows all offer the enhanced leg room. For additional space in club, they only use 2 of the 3 seats, omitting the middle one: but for operational reasons, if there are n rows of CE, then seat B of row n+1 is also excluded from use in this way. This means that if you can snag A or C on the first EuroTraveller row, you get both the legroom and extra space of CE for ET prices! Of course, there can only be two lucky winners- and if you try to grab it too early, you may fall victim to the 'moving curtain' if CE resizes, which will reassign you to somewhere almost certainly worse. Since I don't have status, I couldn't even try to book any sooner than when check-in opened 24 hours out- but I was there a minute after it did, and thus able to shift from an assigned 6A to 4A. With the Eurotraveller cabin at capacity, this was quite a result!

Of course, it doesn't do anything about the food - an entirely forgettable tomato and egg sandwich - but I had high hopes for decent dining in Italy, and maintain that it's entirely possible to travel on jelly babies alone (curse their 5% of recommended daily sugar per baby!). We touched down 25 minutes late (18:05), and it's a few minutes drive on the ground to the gate. But being seated near the front, with no baggage to collect, and an EU passport reducing border control to a matter of seconds (a very welcome change from all my recent flights, which have been across the pond), I was through to the train station by 18:20. That got me on the 18:38 Leonardo Express to Rome proper, which was a definite improvement on my trains from earlier in the day (and at 14 one way, rather cheaper than Paddington's Heathrow Express):
The Leonardo Express

This gave me plenty of time to find food at Roma Termini, but rather than trusting my own eyes I followed some half-remembered advice from the internet and managed to trek /away/ from the main station concourse for quite some time, under the delusion that the Leonardo arrives in a separate area to the regular trains and having spotted a sign to 'all trains' on the way in. Thus I traced out three sides of a large rectangle in getting from platform 24 to 1, when one would have both sufficed and led me past all the catering options. Still, I topped up my dwindling snack supply with some chocolate and water, and was pleased to find my final train almost exactly where I expected it to be, it having somehow hopped to platform 2.
Deserted tunnel under the platforms at Roma Termini- clearly I have gone wrong by this point.

First class was clean and spacious, especially as I'd been seated in one of the individual seats at the centre of the carriage (thus benefiting from a table) and the service was mostly empty. I did have to travel backwards, though, and rather than staring straight at the attractive young woman opposite me for two hours it seemed best to satisfy myself with the dregs of my newspaper I'd obtained seemingly so long ago in Bristol (as a mathematician, a fashion supplement is not desperately useful to me).
First class on Train Italia Domestic service.

The journey passed without incident or excitement - it was too dark to enjoy the tour through 120 miles of Italian scenery - or, for that matter, food: I was surprised to find that there wasn't even a trolley service on board. Still, I arrived in Assisi at the promised time, and had one last part of my schedule to tick off- the hike up to the town itself.

I have a notoriously poor sense of direction, even when armed with a map (see earlier scenic tour of Roma Termini), but with the twin beacons of the Basilica of San Francesco and Rocca Maggiore prominently placed on the largest hill for miles, even I could probably have muddled through to the town gates. Google's walking directions had me following an unlit country lane at first, but having scouted it out via streetview first I was reassured even though it didn't look like it could the main route to anywhere. 30 minutes of walking (and, despite the late hour, sweating) got me to the conference venue where, through a mixture of pointing, mime and the odd word in Italian that sounds like an English equivalent, was able to check-in with the night porter, and obtain a key for a room in exchange for my passport. I had no idea when or where breakfast might be, but if all else failed there would always be more jelly babies, so, 14 hours after I'd set out, I was happy to just succumb to sleep.

TheFlyingDoctor Mar 25, 12 1:17 pm

Part III: Assisi

I'm assuming that around here, it's the journey rather than the destination that's of interest, but nonetheless, here's a few details about why I needed to be in Assisi rahter than somewhere easier to reach.

A perhaps unexpected perk of academic life is that there's a lot of travel involved- for pure mathematics, all you really need is smart people and a supply of paper, and so it helps to drop a hundred or so people in a room for a week to ponder a particular topic. Of course, it helps both the creative process and to convince people to make the trip in the first place if you pick somewhere scenic- the best I've attended so far was at a research station deep in the Canadian rockies. But even if the venue is a standard conference centre or hotel complex, just being in a different city or country can be enough of a lure for me!

In this case I was attending a conference on computational geometry, which lies somewhere on the border between mathematics and computer science. Talks covered everything from practical topics like robot navigation or watermarking circuit designs to the highly abstract, with titles such as "Book embedding of N-free posets". Of course, the wonder of mathematics (and the point that often seems to elude funding bodies) is that thinking about the abstract questions can produce just the right sort of ideas for practical applications, perhaps decades later. Not that usefulness should be the ultimate measure of an intellectual pursuit- unlike the high school grind of arithmetic exercises, there's a genuinely creative aspect to advanced mathematics.

Anyway, maths-evangelism over, I was also able to grab a few hours for sightseeing around this remarkably attractive town. This being my first time in Italy, I don't really have any useful reference points for comparison, but I certainly wish I'd had more time to explore. I did make it to the highest point, Rocca Maggiore, from where I was able to see that I'd missed plenty of the winding medieval streets, with their steady supply of churches, during my brief wanderings in search of food each lunchtime/evening. A few photographic highlights can be found in this gallery.

TheFlyingDoctor Mar 25, 12 3:02 pm

Part IV: Assisi to Bristol

So, all too soon, I had to head back to Bristol, by an even slower - but logistically simpler, and rather more pampered - series of journeys.

Walking down from central Assisi to its station, in bright sunlight (but early enough for the heat to not yet be a problem), was much easier than my late night, uphill arrival trek. Although I was slowed down considerably by stopping repeatedly to look back at (and photograph) the views I'd been denied that first time. At the station I recognised a few other attendees from the conference, so passed the perhaps-excessive amount of time I'd allowed for the train in conversation with them.

I forgot to get a photo of this train's interior, but - whilst still comfortable - it seemed more basic than the first, and once again lacked any kind of on-board catering. Does everyone take a picnic, or do Italians favour heroically large breakfasts to set themselves up for the day? I'd pretty much run out of everything - even Jelly Babies - by this point, so I opted for a quick pizza and chips at Roma Termini, helpfully causing myself to miss one of the Leonardo Expresses by a matter of seconds, and thus causing a half hour wait that would've been much better spent at the BA lounge.

I was as usual in a position to go straight to security, and on the way spotted a queue for business class with a wide variety of airport logos. Whilst I tried to spot BA's swoosh, the first guard called me over, his expression suggesting he thought I was in the wrong place at first. Which was fair enough, given that I was 5 days unshaven (forgot my razor), in cargo trousers and a tshirt (both on their second wear), and had managed to pick up quite an impressive cut to my head whilst paying insufficient attention to roof height in the Rocca. Still, my electronic boarding pass proudly declared my club europe status, and was thus acceptable to bothe the guard and the electronic gate.

As karma for my condescension towards bucket-and-spaders at Gatwick's secuirty, here I was the one hopelessly out of my element. The complete absence of a queue here in the fast lane meant that I hadn't had a chance to perform my usual rituals of extracting liquids from my luggage, untying most of the knots on my shoes, or shuffling all pocket contents to my coat and removing it. Fortunately there was no-one behind me to hold up, either; which helped as this time they did of course want my shoes for scanning, and it turns out I should have removed my mobile phone from my bag, so that had to be swabbed too.

Even with my incompetence, I was still through far faster than usual (and the regular queues implied). My oft-failing sense of direction sent me the wrong way in search of the lounge, but I did find an information stand where I was pointed back in a saner direction.

And so I found myself on the escalator up to my first taste of a business lounge. In the interests of cutting down bulk I wasn't travelling with a laptop, just an ipod touch, which offers a tiny web-browsing experience over wifi. When using that to check out the lounge reviews here on FlyerTalk I'd failed to spot that the photo review - wherein FCO's lounge is declared the second worst in BA's collection - was over a year old. I hadn't mustered enough bandwidth to actually see the photos, so at the time had concluded that FTers were either incredibly fussy or the other lounges are truly amazing. But comparing now, I see that it's had a refurb since that post; here's how she looks as of the moment-

Still, this being lounge number 1 for me I'm still not in a position to assess it properly, but compared to the standard airport experience it's an absolute delight. After a week of struggling to get by in a country where I foolishly don't speak the language (pizza toppings and musical terms only get you so far), it also felt like an early return to the UK - with British papers and BBC news on the TV to help me get a sense of the budget. After perusing the three areas offering food and drink, I settled in on a comfy leather sofa to recharge batteries both literal and metaphorical.

For those of you completely used to this mode of travel, and perhaps even a little jaded by it, I hope my perspective as a first-timer can remind you how much better it really is. For me, the main thing was simply the sense of being removed from it all - no bustle of crowds, no stream of annoucements for flights you don't care about in languages you can't parse, no over-priced drinks consumed in uncomfortable chairs, and a pleasant bathroom you can visit without dragging all your stuff with you. Lest all this make me sound like a terrible snob, I should point out I was probably the youngest person there by about a decade, and definitely the scruffiest (in the unlikely event of being called out on it, I had decided to try and pass myself off as a dotcom millionaire for entertainment, but no-one batted an eyelid). I like to imagine this is how commercial air travel first was - certainly, it's how it should be.

That sense of being set apart continued on the flight itself - I couldn't resist grabbing seat 4A again when I saw that this time CE would comprise four rows - as it happens, there were only 6 of us in the cabin and so I wound up with the entire row to myself. I'm not sure what psychological trickery is at work, but despite being in the exact same physical location as the flight out, being at the back of CE felt completely different to the front of ET.

This wasn't actually my first experience of club dining, having done a longhaul in world traveller plus (which gets meals from Club World, plus the 'proper' plates, cutlery and glassware) earlier this year. This time, we had a choice from three different meals, although I understand that two is standard: Seared Salmon, Lamb Roghan Josh, or a Beef Casserole- I chose the fish, on the grounds that it's really hard to do a bad job of salmon. It turned up with a cheese board and oat cakes, and the main dish comprised plenty of fish with potato (somewhere between mash and a gratin) and some veg; Seat 2A will be pleased to hear that bread was delivered separately, with a selection of warm rolls from a basket. I almost wish I'd resisted having so many nibbles in the lounge, or the less than amazing chips at Roma Termini, as I was unable to finish it all simply due to the quantity! Although I did save enough space for the dessert, which had somehow escaped from my serving at first, but was found and delivered by the cabin crew before I realised.

Post food, the cabin lights were dimmed for a while, so I decided to get some rest and save my (lounge-looted) newspaper for the trains that still awaited me in the UK. We landed exactly on time, which caused me a mild panic as I thought I had 3 minutes to get to the station, before realising I was still on Italian time and had a much more relaxed hour to make my way through the airport. Stepping out onto the jetbridge, I was struck by the realisation that this was the least stressed I could remember feeling after a flight- granted, it was a lot shorter than a pond hop, but even domestic services normally leave me feeling harried rather than relaxed. I suspect I might be picking up an expensive habit...

But is it really? 80 for three hours of lounge access and two of the flight might seem a lot- surely I'd be better served buying one hell of a meal at a restaurant in Rome? But it's much harder to put a price on that sense of ease I felt at the end of those hours, and I think that's what makes it. Of course, with status the swifter security and lounge access come as standard, and with the ability to book seats in advance it might well be enough to just grab one of the ET seats nearer the front, or an exit row. But it'd be impossible to guarantee 4A or C each time, and even though I had luckily snared it, I felt it was genuinely improved in the context of CE. What I guess I'm trying to say is, I may be another convert to the cult of status-seekers...

Which I guess is a good place to end this trip report, rather than dwell on the tedium that was the pair of trains (and 30 minute idle at Reading to the soundtrack of heavy construction, rapidly becoming my least favourite station) that eventually conveyed me back to Bristol. My first club flight, but hopefully the first of many. Thanks for reading!

bucketlist Mar 25, 12 4:17 pm

Thanks for an interesting trip report - hope you have many more (trips in Club World and trip reports)!

zookeeper Mar 27, 12 1:25 pm

This TR reminded me of the excitement of visiting my first airport lounge back when I was a youngster (more years ago than I care to admit ;)). Thanks for sharing!

TheFlyingDoctor Mar 27, 12 4:04 pm

So, I forgot to include seat 4A! Here it is, showing the leg room and how the arm rests are pushed into the (unused) 4B for extra width.

Rickers Mar 27, 12 4:46 pm

Very nice --- well written and relevant (unlike so many other posts, often mine !!) ^

exilencfc Mar 28, 12 3:45 pm

Reading station is a bit of a hell hole at the moment. But then the rest of the town is always a bit of a hell hole.

Hooray for academia! Thanks for explaining what mathematicians do in social situations ;)

loobs40 Mar 30, 12 10:33 am

I have booked the exact same upgrade flight when we fly back from Rome in the new year. I wouldn't normally upgrade but we are leaving a cruise ship early in the morning and would have quite a long time to hang around the airport for the flight to London. Thus spending some of the time in the relative quiet of a club lounge appealed.

I well remember my first foray into the world of Club Class and my amazement at what was on offer in the lounges around the world. It made one helluva difference to the whole experience of flying long haul. Getting off a long flight at Brisbane and being able to shower before the onward flight to Cairns. Also being able to sleep and keep comfortable on the flat beds when travelling accross the Atlantic.

I'm sure this will amuse those frequent fliers in Club and First, but since the cost of flying Club is generally out of our reach, the odd occasions when we do really enhances the whole travel experience

TheFlyingDoctor Mar 31, 12 12:11 pm

Originally Posted by loobs40 (Post 18303126)
I'm sure this will amuse those frequent fliers in Club and First, but since the cost of flying Club is generally out of our reach, the odd occasions when we do really enhances the whole travel experience

Well, once something becomes routine I'm sure it loses a lot of the appeal. I'd hate to get so used to club that I started to view BA's standard offering as a disappointment - for all the talk of agonY or whY around here, their economy product is still a lot better than various longhaul charters, or easyjet/ryanair short hops I've had over the years. Although for the longhaul stuff I suppose the seasoned club traveller can still aspire to first- and I have to admit my next two flights are both booked as CE!

Seat 2A Mar 31, 12 12:25 pm

Good stuff, Doc! This well written trip report was just the prescription for a lazy (and snowy) Saturday morning here in Alaska's Interior. I'll definitely look forward to reading more of your reports when you eventually make it up into First Class!

GRALISTAIR Mar 31, 12 12:38 pm

Great report. I do have pleasant memories (mainly) walking down Bath Road to Temple Meads in the 1970s. I am slightly suprised you did not go all the way into Paddington and get the Circle Line to Victoria and the Gatwick Express from there.

TheFlyingDoctor Mar 31, 12 12:45 pm

GRALISTAIR, that's definitely the quicker and more comfortable way to do it (especially as being hand-luggage only makes for a straightforward experience on the tube); but bailing out at Reading is much cheaper. I think I'll happily pay the extra in future to avoid the trouble experienced, though.

TheFlyingDoctor Mar 31, 12 12:55 pm

and Seat 2A, I'm particularly glad you enjoyed it as I spent many of the slack moments on this trip working through your excellent 87K mileage run report, which no doubt played a part in inspiring me to document this one reasonably thoroughly.

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