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The big win, big science, and a big storm: London, Geneva and Edinburgh with BA/IHG

The big win, big science, and a big storm: London, Geneva and Edinburgh with BA/IHG

Old Dec 15, 13, 2:49 pm
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Join Date: Dec 2011
Location: BRS
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The big win, big science, and a big storm: London, Geneva and Edinburgh with BA/IHG

Jet d'Eau

It seems that for me, four is the magic number when it comes to hotel promotions operating under time pressure. Enough to not be a routine trip and thus activate my 'hmm, how can I best put this together?' curiosity; but not obviously infeasible. I started this year by bouncing around California on a status challenge with Hilton; and now I end it chasing the 'big win' across Europe.

This is IHG's Fourth Quarter promotion, and it feels like they're actively courting the travel-hacker crowd with this one. Having signed up to the Rewards Club specifically to give it a shot, here's the challenge I was set:
  • Survey the win: Complete a simple survey and receive 100 Points.
  • Try one and done: Stay at any IHG® hotel and receive 1,000 Points.
  • Book with us: Book 2 separate stays through an IHG hotel website or mobile device to get our best price guarantee and receive 2,000 Points.
  • Stay more and earn more: Stay a total of 4 nights and receive 4,000 Points.
  • Win in a weekend: Stay 2 Saturday nights and receive 8,000 Points.
  • Explore our brands: Stay at 3 different IHG brands and receive 10,000 Points.
  • Win big: Complete all of your offers and receive 25,000 Points.

A change of employment has somewhat curtailed my work-related travel; or at least, that of the kind that makes for flashy title-lines here. I'm still racking up plenty of flights and hotel stays, but it's more of the easyjet-and-ibis variety than Club class and Hiltons. Some of my existing plans could easily have a Holiday Inn Express stay worked into them, but to grab the lot – especially the three different brands requirement – would require going out of my way somewhat.

I initially considered it as a straight mattress run, pricing up the cheapest pre-Christmas Saturday night stays at my local Hotel Indigo and a nearby Holiday Inn. But I figured that it makes better sense to spend a bit more on a trip that I'd actually like to take, than to take an optimally-priced trip to nowhere. A milestone birthday helped swing me in the direction of an international component, as it'd help justify spending above what was strictly necessary for accommodation. Plus my ever-growing avios stash would let me keep the travel costs down and enjoy some of my status with BA.

Still, this remains an economy-class trip, and I had to keep an eye on the spending to make the big win worthwhile. But although there might be a general absence of caviar and champagne, I suspect this is the first trip report to feature a particle accelerator! I must apologise that it will be thin on photography initially - since I didn't originally plan for this to become a trip report. I hope my verbosity can make up for that, but I'm no Seat2A... Still, for your entertainment, the travel gods continued to be fickle things, summoning all kinds of chaos from high winds to the dreaded leaves on the line - possibly still attached to trees - and so I deemed this project interesting enough to document.


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Old Dec 15, 13, 2:51 pm
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Best-laid plans

I never quite meant to take on this project. There's still a small part of my brain that knows most people prefer to book one hotel per trip, rather than per night; or that taking two flights is 'better' than four. But the number-crunching part of my brain is much bigger, and lulled the sensible bit into a false sense of security with an undeniably good-value first stay. Such is the multitude of IHG reward codes that it's worth fitting in a visit every so often to hit a bunch of them at once. By Autumn of this year, Raffles' calculations suggested one could expect to net upwards of 20K for a single night, and that was enough to get my attention.

Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself. In an ideal world, I wouldn't have needed a hotel stay at all. That's the ideal world where my relatives see the light and move to cities with airports, rather than remote bits of the English countryside. Somehow, though, my moving to Edinburgh – a city so fond of transport links it's spent close to a billion pounds on a tram system that doesn't even work – is taken as a sign that I'll be far too far away to visit them again. Ever. So (as I had admittedly been a bit lax at making the journey over from my previous location of Bristol) I felt I should prove them wrong.

However, whilst I only do a Monday-Friday, said relatives tend to work Saturdays too, which meant any visit was always going to be a brief affair. The obvious solution would be to take the train, but when you combine Sunday timetables with deepest darkest Suffolk, you discover that you'd have to leave at 4pm on the last of the once every two hours local trains that'll connect you to a proper service back to Edinburgh. Yet if I were to make the unintuitive choice of travelling the wrong way – that is, to London – I wouldn't have to depart until nearly 10pm. Obviously that puts me in London on Monday instead of Edinburgh on Sunday – but a suitably early flight can remedy that before an affordable train would even be setting off from Suffolk.

In fact, such is the outrageous state of short-notice British rail pricing that a flight would be cheaper as well as quicker – a last minute panic about a possibly moving deadline saw me pricing up that 4pm service anyway, and it was over £130 for a single in standard class! Admittedly, BA wanted at least £120 for a plane ticket, but their reward flight saver system turned that into £17.50 and 4500 avios.

All I needed was a place near an airport to rest my head for a few hours. So the first IHG booking came to be; entering London from the east meant that London City was the most sensible choice (and a new one for me!), and the Holiday Inn Express London- Royal Docks fit the bill. Even without the points, at under £90 I'd be beating the price of the train; with those, they were practically paying me to stay. This already felt like winning.
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Old Dec 15, 13, 2:54 pm
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Suffolk by rail

Then, the day before I was due to depart, this popped up on the radar:

Suddenly, things didn't look so good. Those hotel points would only trigger if I actually checked in – and if flights were pulled, that 4pm train wouldn't have got any cheaper, plus I'd lose nearly a quarter of my time with my family. On the other hand, this storm didn't even exist yet, except as a simulation in a Met office supercomputer.

So it was with some trepidation that I set off south, not at all sure how I would be returning north. The first steps – literally – were guaranteed trouble-free, as I now live an easy 15-20 minute walk from Edinburgh's Waverley station.

Saturday, October 26th
Edinburgh – Peterborough Dep 09:30 Arr 13:04
Peterborough – Bury St Edmunds Dep 13:45 Arr 14:57
Changes: 1 Duration: 5h 27m
£59.80 Standard Single Advance.

The 09:30 runs Edinburgh-Kings' Cross, so is available for boarding well in advance: given the number of people who join, usually with specific seats and often trailing their own weight in luggage, this is a big help. It amazes me how much longer it takes to board a plane, as a service that started in, say, Glasgow, would only be on the platform at Edinburgh for a few minutes.

On this occasion, the extra time allowed me to correct some confusion with which was my seat- or rather, carriage. My cheaply printed ticket suggested D62, but it was in fact B62: something was clearly up when I entered D, as it didn't even have 62 seats! Ordinarily, it would, and I would have become that most awful of people, the seat-stealer; but in the railway equivalent of an Op-Up, the usual standard-class coach had gone tech and the only replacement they could find was first class stock. Good news for those who actually had reservations in D: or at least two thirds of them, as the more spacious seating meant some of the reservations had overflown to C. This would cause capacity issues later, but I got myself settled in to B62 with ten minutes still to go. Situated at the very back of the last coach (as A was also bafflingly missing), I expected it to be a pretty quiet spot.

Sadly it was a right-hand-side aisle seat, with the left-hand pair occupied: this meant I couldn't enjoy the impressive view that the east coast route offers as it skirts the north Atlantic coastline. Moreover, the window seat on my side was occupied from the next station, and by the stop after that it's standing room only for those unfortunate enough to lack a reservation. I dug in with ipad-entertainment: Argo, and an episode of Castle.

We were only a few minutes late to Peterborough, a station which never fails to disappoint. Somehow an ill wind permanently blows through this forsaken place, and although it appears they're building more platforms, the new shelters don't look like they'll offer much respite. Catering has marginally improved with the appearance of a Starbucks, but their grill was broken, so I had to resort to the Pumpkin Cafe for a hot option. These are uniformly terrible; the least-worst option seemed to be a barbecue 'chicken' wrap – actual chicken content allegedly 15%, don't think I saw anything recognisably such – for which I was relieved of almost a fiver. Next time I'll remember to pack a picnic.

Peterborough station isn't entirely bereft of interest, though. On the way out, I got a glimpse at a strange contraption bearing the legend RTV 31:

(public domain image via wikimedia)

Having dragged myself into the smartphone era, I spent much of the journey to Bury St Edmunds learning about this: it's the only surviving vehicle and guideway portion of the tracked hovercraft. This was an experimental combination of British technologies – the hovercraft and the linear induction motor – aiming to provide a high speed train system. The need for specialised tracks – preventing interoperability with slower services or routing on exisiting infrastructure – meant it was dead by the early 70s, with the Advanced Passenger Train finding favour instead. That also apparently was too complicated for its own good, with a trio of trains being rushed into service in 1981 but almost immediately dropped after a series of technical issues and a savaging in the press. Fortunately a more conventional high speed train launched in the mid 70s: the non-tilting, diesel-powered 125s that are my iconic image of intercity travel. Whilst the APT designs eventually fed back into modern services like the Pendolino, I'll always have a soft spot for the HST, and thirty years on they're still going strong. Indeed, it was one of those I travelled on from Edinburgh!

Ahem. Lest you fear I've gone all train-spotter, I can tell you absolutely nothing about the second train I was on, other than that it was somewhat interestingly decorated with a series of attractions and locations it wasn't actually going to:

Oh, and it got me to my destination pretty much on time. All you need, really. Not that there's much to describe about that, either. I'm not sure if Bury St Edmunds counts as a tourist location; maybe locally, but I struggle to imagine it registering internationally. As mentioned, I was there for family, and perhaps you can tell I haven't otherwise warmed to the place. There's nothing actively wrong with it, but when you call somewhere like Edinburgh home, there aren't too many places that seem worth leaving for.

Still, if for some reason you do find yourself there, I can recommend the really rather good coffee shop. It's actually called that (which is a bit more self-confident that my previous Bristol local, 'that little cafe', but equally unhelpful as a description.) After a wintry stroll around the Abbey gardens, their warmed scones with clotted cream and jam were much appreciated:

and the serving approach helps solve any arguments over whether cream or jam should be deployed first

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Old Dec 15, 13, 2:56 pm
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Battling the St Jude Storm, part I

British Summer Time having ended that morning, it was already properly grim and dark by 5pm, with the wind picking up substantially. Having favoured a roast dinner with my family over that mid-afternoon train, I was now committed to the 'trains to London, flight to Edinburgh' plan. But the St Jude storm (as it was starting to be called) was showing no signs of easing off or re-routing. BA was already offering those with a Monday morning flight the option to rebook to Sunday or indeed any date in the next fortnight. I only learnt this from the BA board here on FlyerTalk – despite BA having my email address, mobile number, and knowing I was checked in via the app, they never actually communicated this useful offer to me...

As it was, my flight being to get me home rather than to a meeting or holiday, I was determined to stick it out. I figured I had solid travel insurance, and that LCY is small enough compared to LHR/LGW that there would be less of a backlog to clear – particularly, no long haul international traffic – once conditions had improved. On the other hand, the CityFlyer jets are tiny things, so I spent quite a bit of time googling wind-speed limits for Embraers!

All this fixation on the flights, though, was misplaced. I should have paid more attention to the fact that by Sunday evening most train companies in the storm area had cancelled any Monday morning services. Including, for example, the Gatwick Express (which at least made LCY look like the right call). What I should have been worrying about, then, was not my departure from London, but getting there in the first place.

My attention became fully focused on that issue at 21:50, as I was boarding a train at BSE. Why was that a problem, and why do I still know the time to the minute? Because this was my original plan:

(Hoped for) Trains
Sunday, October 27th
Bury St Edmunds - Cambridge dep. 21:41 arr 22:24
Cambridge - London Liverpool Street, dep. 22:32 arr 23:43
Changes: 1 Duration: 2h 2m
£8 Standard single advance.

and 21:50 is of course 9 minutes late, in perfect mockery of my 8 minute connection at Cambridge. Worse, that would be the last service to Liverpool Street that night (and, given the cancellation of anything pre-9am Monday, until well after my flight).

It was clear that there was no hope of making up the time – the train proceeded at a highly cautious pace, yet still suffered disconcerting wheel slips. A possibility was that with the whole network in such disarray, I could get the Cambridge departure held. The conductor was sympathetic to the idea but - as I was the only one mad enough to be attempting the connection - a call to 'control' confirmed that they wouldn't delay it specially. Nor could I rely on it being delayed by the weather, as it started from Cambridge. There is some duty of care under the National Rail conditions of carriage, but even if they were prepared to pay for it, I didn't fancy a 60 mile cab ride (and a local hotel would of course be useless).

As it is, I arrived to a Cambridge in moderate chaos at about quarter to 11. The screens allege a King's Cross service at 23:25 that keeps changing platform and doesn't seem to exist in the official schedule. Staff are mostly hiding, but when I find someone and enquire as to Liverpool Street, I am pointed at a train that plainly says 'Bishops Stortford' on it. My faded sense of South-east English geography suggests that this would at least be nearer, so I hop on just as it's about to depart (22:51). Another equally baffled passenger decides to wait for that phantom KGX service instead – I wonder if she ever made it there, or indeed out of Cambridge.

My smartphone immediately justified its recent purchase as I worked some schedule-fu on National Rail and TFL's websites. Under the possibly rash assumption that we stuck to the schedule, I could connect at Bishop's Stortford to a service to Liverpool Street, but I realised that once there I'd struggle to get back to my ultimate target, Canning Town.

Should you find yourself in similarly improbable straits, I suggest being as aggressive as possible with the TFL journey planner's settings: there needs to be an option for “no, really, I'd rather walk for ten minutes than try to swap between 3 different lines”. With this approach, I cooked up a more geographically-direct routing: I would still join a Liverpool Street service at Bishops' Stortford, but I would then bail out early at somewhere called 'Seven Sisters', where I could take a Victoria Line tube to Walthamstow, walk from the tube station to the bus depot, then finally take a night bus to Canning town.

This, somehow, turned out to be viable – if pulse-raising – plan. The promised Liverpool Street service at Bishops Stortford turned out to be the Stansted Express, and showed all signs of behaving like a normal train. That put me in Seven Sisters (wherever that is; I experienced it entirely as platforms and tunnels) eight minutes into Monday. Southbound tubes had already ceased for the night, but with Walthamstow being the terminal stop just three stations away, I was able to get one of the last couple of trains still working their way north. At Walthamstow I actually caught a break: I should have been two minutes late for the 00:26 bus, but by this stage we had ark-building levels of rain, so it was delayed just a few moments more than I was.

Once on board, I realised I had never been on a night bus in London, that I had no idea where I was, and that the combination of witching-hour darkness and rain-lashed windows meant I had little hope of getting my bearings. Mercifully, there turns out to be a voice announcement of each upcoming stop, and in the event Canning Town was the final destination, so there was no real risk of overshooting.

I finally got there a fraction before 1am, took the long route around the bus stop onto what should have been an entirely obvious road, and then it was a straight line shot to the hotel. Well, straight line apart from the buffeting, and the rain continued in a fashion that could save me a shower the next morning. Never, I suspect, has someone been so pleased to see a Holiday Inn Express appear in the distance; I managed to stagger there without being taken out by an airborne plant-pot or similar improbably aloft object.

Way back at Cambridge I'd called to warn that I wouldn't be arriving until Monday yet would still very much want a room, and there was someone waiting at reception to check me in. Setting two alarms for less than five hours' time, I finally crashed out around 1:30am. Over four hours to cover 75 miles, but the IHG points would be mine!

Hotel 1: Holiday Inn Express London- Royal Docks
Points earnt: 1185 (base) + 3000 + 3000 + 3000 + 2000 + 3000 + 1000 + 1500 + 1500 +1500 (bonuses)
Big Win Progress: Completed try one and done; contributed to book with us, stay more and earn more, explore our brands.
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Old Dec 15, 13, 2:57 pm
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Battling the St Jude Storm, part II

The sensible option would probably have been to rebook to a later flight and get a lie-in, but some combination of stubbornness and denial saw me spring into action at 6am. Not sure I can give an objective review of the hotel room given how little time I spent awake in it; unsurprisingly I didn't bother to get any photos. I did bother with breakfast – included for free (as was wifi) - as I figured it might need to see me through for a while. It's available from 6:30, and I made it to the breakfast area before the warm food items did! Fortunately they appeared before I wrote the experience off as being an underwhelming continental offering, with the bonus of therefore still being piping hot.

From breakfast it was straight to check-out, weaving my way around staff trying to clear up the contents of the storm-scattered planters as I left the building. I caught sight of a few planes in the sky, which gave me some confidence – as it didn't occur to me that they could just be stuck in holding stacks due to unsuitable landing conditions. Also in reassuring evidence was the Docklands Light Railway, which took only a few minutes to convey me the four stops from Canning Town to London City airport.

This was my first taste of LCY, and its security procedures are to be measured in seconds, not minutes – for once, I was the limiting factor. All in all, I went from hotel door to air-side in 22 minutes, an experience I'd love to replicate at other airports. That, though, was about the extent of the good news. I'd been watching BA8700 – the 7am Edinburgh departure preceding mine – with their app, as it slipped later and later to an estimated 8am. Just as I found a comfy spot in the terminal area, it was cancelled outright; several airlines had pre-emptively dropped all flights, but it seemed that none of what was left on the schedules would be going anywhere soon either.

Whilst it's quick to get in to City, the idea is that you should get out quick too: although my BA silver card entitles me to lounge access, there is no lounge to access! As the departure board turned into an angry sea of red, crowds built up, and I was glad to have at least claimed a seat whilst I could.

Miraculously, a couple of flights ahead of mine called for boarding – first one to Amsterdam, and then more relevantly, BA's service to Glasgow. Soon enough, we Edinburgh types were also invited to board, and although at first we only got as far as a strange holding pen (comfy seats, but not enough for all those about to travel) we were eventually released to the tarmac and our little plane.

Monday, October 28th
08:45 British Airways (operated by CityFlyer) BA8702 LCY– EDI (due 10:05) Single class Embraer ERJ-190 (flown on G-LCYJ) .
Seat 12D (Domestic, Exit-row window seat secured for free at booking via silver status).
Reward Flight Saver redemption: 4500 avios + £17.50.

This was my first CityFlyer service, and also marked a couple of notable figures for me flying-wise: I'd hit 100,000 miles of flying, and ten days spent in the air. Of course, with a lot of Heathrow arrivals comes a lot of circling around London, so it was possible that I'd already passed these levels; but by the end of this flight, it was impossible that I hadn't

With a small plane and the remnants of St Jude it was an unsurprisingly bumpy ascent, but the views of London on the way out of LCY are suitable distraction and a passable substitute for IFE. My Holiday Inn breakfast felt like a distant memory as the cabin started to fill with a smell of food, and so (used to the often thin offerings in EuroTraveller) I wondered what they'd be serving up. To my surprise, there was a hot tray covering most of a full English breakfast: it'd merit no awards for presentation, but wasn't too offensive taste-wise.

By the time that was dealt with, we'd put some distance between us and the South and so it was smooth flying. Impressively, despite our late departure we actually touched down in Edinburgh five minutes ahead of schedule, and being luggage-less and already armed with a bus ticket, I was soon en route to home and a catch-up nap. Winning!

Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Dec 15, 13 at 3:14 pm
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Old Dec 15, 13, 2:59 pm
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EDI-LHR-GVA-LHR-GVA : the flights

We rejoin the action a couple of weeks later, for my birthday jaunt. I'm going to break from chronological ordering of events now, and instead run through the flights, accommodations, and some of the attractions that lured me to Geneva in the first place. Partly because taking four economy flights with the same carrier in four days causes them to blur together, but mostly because unlike my earlier trip, they were almost entirely untroubled, so there's not so much to say! It's easy to get a distorted opinion of an airline – or travel in general – for it's the disaster stories that stick in the mind or generate angry FT posts. So it's nice to be able to take note of a time when everything behaved as it should.

Here, then, is what I had scheduled:


Thursday, November 7th
19:35 British Airways BA1463 EDI-LHR (due 21:00) Single class Airbus A320-200 (flown on G-EUUZ) . Seat 10F (Domestic, Exit-row window).

Friday, November 8th
08:20 British Airways BA0726 LHR-GVA (due 11:00) Two-class Airbus A321-200 (flown on G-EUXC) . Seat 22A (EuroTraveller, Exit-row window).

Sunday, November 10th
17:25 British Airways BA0733 GVA-LHR (due 18:05) Two-class Airbus A320-200 (flown on G-TTOB) . Seat 10A (Domestic, Exit-row window).
21:00 British Airways BA1464 LHR-EDI (due 22:25) Single class Boeing 767-300ER (flown on G-BZHC) . Seat 8B (Domestic, Front-cabin aisle).

All four were part of a single reward booking, again using RFS for an entirely-agreeable 9000 avios and £35 as the domestic legs don't add anything to the price. Once again, my silver status allowed me to mostly grab exit row seats, with the exception of the final domestic, where they'd all been claimed (so I placed myself into the smaller front cabin). I wouldn't actually pay to select a seat if I didn't have this as a perk, so I don't consider it a direct saving: but it does rather improve the experience. Particularly on the A321, where the 22A and F seats (but, beware, not B-E!) offer an outrageous amount of leg room:

A321 ultimate leg room

Award availability didn't have too much of an effect on the scheduling – there was no good way to do all of EDI-LHR-GVA on the Friday, but I find overnighting at an airport then taking an early morning flight less stressful than a tight connection. Some might feel that 3 hours between flights on the inbound is a bit long to hang around, but despite making status in February (and some club tickets before that), I'd never actually tried out the big BA Galleries at Heathrow.

So that I could thoroughly geek out on camera equipment as carry-on, I did have a case to check for this short trip. There was no problem asking for it to be tagged to London so that I could have it overnight and re-drop; whilst on the return it merrily made its way from Geneva to Edinburgh without any further effort on my part.

Security was a mixed experience: at Edinburgh I had the delight of joining the fast-track queue just as a group of four chancers were turned away (I should not enjoy that, but always do). That made me the only person in the queue, so total time from entering security to perusing the lounge biscuits was under three minutes. Heathrow outbound managed to be yet quicker, somehow negotiating fast track in 2 minutes, 20 seconds, and moving equally briskly from the terminal to the sanctuary of a lounge. Geneva took the shine off, as - presumably thanks to all the finance types passing-through - fast track for BA customers requires gold status. The regular line turned out to be a 25 minute affair, not helped by queue-jumpers brandishing tickets for soon-to-depart flights grinding to a halt when presented with the surprise of needing to put their stuff into trays.

Such baffling unfamiliarity with airport protocol was most in evidence at Heathrow flight connections, though – by definition, everyone there has already done the security dance in (most charitably) the last day. How they can thus be so shocked to learn that, no, you can't take metal items through a metal detector is beyond me. In the interests of feminist advocacy, I feel compelled to point out it was mostly men who were screwing this up. This is relevant because Heathrow security seemingly only allows same-gender checks of those who trip the alarm. So if one man is getting a pat-down, no others can even try to run the gauntlet. You'd think the backlog of guys thus waiting and watching as the first negotiates surrender of a belt, phone, keys, and other random bits of metalwork might think to take the time to pre-emptively do the same, but you'd be wrong.

Lounges still haven't become entirely routine for me – and I do enough LCC travel that I appreciate them when I don't have access! - and Edinburgh, Heathrow T5 and Geneva were all new to me. EDI is the smallest and least well-stocked in terms of food, but as I wasn't attempting to put together a meal the snacks were fine.

Early morning at Galleries North

At Galleries North, however, I ate more than my fair share between my two visits: given airport prices for food, this is a status perk I very much do assign a cash value to! At least I don't drink any of the hard stuff, so hopefully my semi-cheating status (attained through tier point chasing on AA domestic first) doesn't do too much damage to BA's bottom line. Saturday morning I'd arrived unfed, so I went for a balanced breakfast of one hot option in each hand (bacon roll, egg/cheese/tomato muffin) before later snaffling some crisps, water and a newspaper for the flight. On Saturday evening I couldn't decide between the jacket potato and beans or chilli con carne with rice, so created a dubious combination of both. I actually failed to appreciate the size of the lounge at first, mistaking the food area and immediate seating for the whole thing – it was only as I sought out the bathrooms - that I realised how much more space there was. I gather that Galleries South is larger still, but concerns have been raised about the food there. Despite its size, North was still rather busy on both of my visits, though.

Galleries North

The same certainly couldn't be said of Geneva: I arrived just as the previous London flight was boarding, so was for a while the only lounge occupant, trying my utmost to put a serious dent into their buffet offerings (I am genetically incapable of walking past a stack of chocolate brownies without taking one, it seems).

A lounge to myself at GVA!

As mentioned, not much to report from the flights themselves. The flight in to Heathrow from Edinburgh saw us doing a lazy lap of London, with amazing city-at-night views: I almost always love these, although it's hard to pin down why. The GVA approach is also a visual treat, although in an entirely different way, thanks to Swiss mountain ranges then a last-minute glimpse of the lake, Jet d'Eau and the city. Looping around Edinburgh can be remarkable too, but my foolish aisle-seat choice meant I have no idea how the view was for this one. In-flight experience was fine, although lounge fuelling is definitely the approach to take to EuroTraveller: a bacon, cheese and tomato croissant sounds ok until you realise it's served cold. Still, plenty of space, smooth flying, everything pretty much on time (nothing to disrupt my plans, at any rate) and less than a tenner per flight, so no complaints here!

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Old Dec 15, 13, 3:00 pm
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Musical Interlude: Marian Call and Scott Barkan @ CERN

Marian Call at CERN

So, why Geneva? I'd been struggling to come up with a plan for my 30th birthday, not being the big party type but not wanting to leave it completely unmarked either. Since I am not especially original, I ended up doing the same thing as I did for my 29th- attending a concert by singer-songwriter Marian Call. Although based in Alaska and thus usually found touring North America, last year she managed to kickstart a European tour. In keeping with her oft-geeky fanbase, she picked some unusual venues, and since I tick a lot of geeky boxes myself, naturally I gravitate towards those.

In 2012, I was torn between two Swiss options – Google in Zurich, or CERN in Geneva. I chose the former, and by luck chose wisely: for this year's smaller follow-up, Marian would only be returning to the latter. That meant I'd get a second chance to go behind the scenes at CERN, as well as take in the concert with a growing community of internationally travelling science-minded Marian Call fans.

Scott Barkan at CERN

And it really is a community; once I'd been identified as one of the deliberate visitors (rather than a local 'Cernie'), I found myself immediately invited to join in with sightseeing and second breakfast the next morning with Marian and the others. Full marks for dedication to your fans! This, I feel, is how making a living from music should be approached in the digital age – instead of having a label or agent, Marian builds up support online and through tour schedules that would make even a FlyerTalker nervous (imagine the amount of luggage!).

She also makes her music freely available to stream, so you don't have to try and guess what's she like just from my pictures. Her most polished album is probably Something Fierce, but you'll get a better sense of the fun of a live show from the recording of last year's London gig. Then if you enjoy what you hear, why not drop in a donation in exchange for a downloadable version, or (for the Americans), check her out next time she's playing local to you?

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Old Dec 15, 13, 3:03 pm
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EDI-LHR-GVA-LHR-GVA : the hotels

Hotel 2: Yotel London Heathrow

Although this trip was motivated by the big win, if it makes more sense to stay elsewhere, I will! That's not always a financial decision – although the Terminal 5 Holiday Inn Express was pricing up around £55, it would involve messing around with buses early in the morning, eating in to the already limited amount of time I'd be able to devote to sleep. Instead, I opted to pay an extra £10 for the convenience of one of Yotel's cabins in Terminal 4, booked from 10pm-6am.

Yotel Heathrow Cabin

Yotel Legroom

These are inspired by Japanese capsule hotels, which are probably the only form of lodging they compare favourably to in terms of space. Small, true, but perfectly formed for my needs: bed, small desk, space for a couple of suitcases, your own shower and toilet, and free tv, wifi and tea/coffee. I recorded a quick video tour which you can watch here. Sure, they're probably a squeeze for a couple, and I wouldn't want to base a holiday around one. But for an early morning flight there's a lot to be said for being able to stroll out into the terminal freshly-showered and unstressed by transport from a 'proper' hotel or further afield. Admittedly, with Yotel that terminal is terminal 4, not 5, but the HEX is no great hardship.

Hotel 3: Holiday Inn Express Geneva Airport
CHF 130.30, approx. £93.
Points earnt: 1353 (base) + 3000 + 2000 + 1000 (bonuses)
Big Win progress: Completed Book with Us; contributed to [I]Stay More and Earn More[I].

Geneva has a remarkably joined up approach to public transport. Once you reach your hotel, you'll receive a free pass for buses, trams and local trains valid for the duration of your stay (including day of check-out). But to avoid any expense in getting to the hotel to claim your pass, there's also a free ticket available in the baggage hall, good for 80 minutes. All this I knew, but unfortunately, I didn't know which buses would get me to the HIX. Turns out: all of them, with the Grand Hangar stop basically opposite and only a couple of minutes from the airport.

If (like me) you walk and (unlike me at first) know where you're going, it's only ten minutes on foot, too. This proved handy for backtracking to the airport and taking trains into Geneva proper; a few minutes in the opposite direction there's a tram stop, Blandonnet , that will take you to – amongst other places – CERN (line 18, apparently too new for google to know about yet). So it's definitely a convenient location, even if not the slightest bit scenic: large roads and railway tracks being the dominant nearby features.

As I mentioned in the first review, Holiday Inn Expresses (expressen?) seem to be cut from the same cloth, with identical room layout here and back at Royal Docks. So my pictures of this one will make up for the lack of earlier ones!

WiFi is free provided you're a member of the IHG rewards club (you don't need to have any status, or even to have stayed before, so this is definitely worth signing up for); also included was a continental breakfast. I usually find these rather thin, but since I had second-breakfast plans in central Geneva, this was not a problem. More of an issue might be where to go for dinner: I couldn't identify anything promising nearby, so perhaps best to make sure you eat in the city.

Hotel 4: Crowne Plaza Geneva
CHF 165.75 (approx £120), plus CHF4 city tax (paid with spare change, but still annoying).
Points Earnt: 1675 (base) + 3000 + 2000 + 1000 (bonuses)
Big Win Progress: Contributed to Stay more and earn more, win in a weekend, explore our brands.

The most challenging of my Big Win requirements would be using three brands – it seemed clear that regular and express flavours of Holiday Inn would be an easy and affordable starting point, but where else? Before deciding on the birthday trip I'd been looking at the Hotel Indigo in Birmingham for a work visit, but that was midweek (so wouldn't contribute to my Saturday stay requirements), and seemed a waste given how little time I'd spend there. As discussed, I wasn't quite prepared to mattress run an expensive hotel at home in Edinburgh. But Geneva gave me a couple of options – the Crowne Plaza and the Intercontinental. Both were obviously going to be more expensive than staying put at the Express, but of course would be more pleasant as a result, so it's not a straight financial hit just to chase the points.

In the end birthday or no I couldn't really justify the Intercontinental – perhaps a shame, as if I had sprung for it, I would have found myself in the midst of the Iranian nuclear negotiations. (I suspect googling 'Iran nuclear intercontinental' to confirm this may have put me on some sort of list). By comparison, the Crowne Plaza seemed a fair compromise.

I had some concerns as recent reviews indicated the hotel was in the midst of a refurb, but it seems I caught that on the tail end. Whilst the main lobby was back in action (rather than a temporary one downstairs), the doors to it were not! So I did cover a fair amount of the perimeter before backtracking to a small door near the bar. I believe one of the restaurants wasn't going to be open until a few days after my departure, either, but this was not an issue for me, and the feared teams of workmen in the common areas were long gone. As a result, all the interior fixtures seemed immaculate; whilst probably not true, I could easily imagine that no-one had yet stayed in my room. Let's take a look:

Yep, that'll do nicely. There were some nice touches like an assortment of pillows and even an aromatherapy kit to help ensure a decent night's sleep; but, as ever, watch out for the minibar fees. What at first glance looked like a free bottle of water on the shelf turned out on closer inspection of the menu stashed behind the panel to be CHF7.50 (over $8). Breakfast options were similarly outrageous, at CHF12 for a quick offering at the bar, or a staggering 35 for the buffet in the downstairs restaurant. I'd strongly recommend popping out to the bakery across the road, where less than CHF 5 will set you up with a pair of deliciously fresh pain au chocolat. (Conveniently, they're open Sundays).

By comparison, bar snacks for the evening were reasonably priced, and having eaten plenty during the day were enough to see me through. I started with the chicken satay skewers with peanut sauce – an Indonesian item, from a Spanish-style tapas menu, served in the Swiss bar of a hotel chain ultimately owned by the British; this was far too confusing to me, so I got some fries as well. These turned out to be an excellent way to mop up the generous portion of peanut sauce, and altogether came to CHF15.

Location-wise it's on par with the Express: not on so many bus routes, but still an easy walk from the airport / station. Once again, you'll get a free transport card, but it's worth noting you're not quite in the heart of Geneva.
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Old Dec 15, 13, 3:04 pm
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Scientfic Interlude: CERN

Perhaps unusually for a mathematician, I'm not a huge Physics fan – searching for a grand unified theory is all well and good, but why restrict yourself to one reality when there's so much more mathematics out there to play with? Nor do the trappings of 'big science' generally catch my attention: to get to work each day, I walk past an observatory, round a couple of two-storey liquid nitrogen tanks, then once in my building through a corridor lined with warning signs suggesting I beware everything from over-powered lasers to biohazards. These things, eventually, become routine.

CERN, though, isn't just big science – it's vast science. The main accelerator ring is 27 kilometres around, spanning two countries; the several story, 7000 tonne ATLAS detector is one of the most complicated – and most precisely constructed - artifacts mankind has ever devised. There's much more to CERN's work than validating the theory of the Higgs boson, but that undeniably gets the lion's share of press attention, and with Higgs being based at my own university in Edinburgh, it's hard not to want to feel some pride-by-proxy. Still, for those who might question the expense, much of the value of projects like this is the technology that comes into being as a side effect of the challenges encountered: starting, of course, with the world wide web.

I got a brief behind-the-scenes glimpse of some of the CERN buildings on the way to Marian's show – in the spirit of university departments everywhere, it's an impenetrable maze of hallways in buildings linked in ways that save their occupants from ever having to venture outside. One of the canteens offers genuinely excellent cakes, and there are vending machines that offer everything from the usual (drinks and snacks) to essentials like shower gel for when the science is too compelling to go home. Indeed, when we were leaving post-show there were still plenty of offices with researchers burning the midnight oil on a Friday night.

For the general public, there are two museums, which I recommend checking out if you find yourself in Geneva: the larger, main exhibit is Microcosm, but I'd suggest starting with the Universe of Particles in the Globe of Science and Innovation. Every half hour (alternating French and English) a movie is projected seemingly onto every surface available in the hall. Whilst light on content, this is big on inspiration, taking an almost religious tone at times, and feeling like it should be the intro to some summer blockbuster sci-fi movie. If this can't get you fired up about science, nothing will! The rest of the time there are a few exhibits to check out – from the first web server, to an early particle accelerator the size of a dinner plate – but the real treat is to get talking to one of the guides.

Universe of Particles

In my case, this led to an unexpected bonus – an unscheduled visit to the ATLAS building. This can be arranged for groups with suitable notice, but since I was travelling alone I had assumed that I'd be missing out. Granted, we couldn't get underground (that's rare even for booked tours), but it meant checking out the control room, watching a 3d movie about the construction of the facility, and having more time to talk science with the guide and other visitors. Plus it's always fun to get access to something you normally couldn't.

Visiting ATLAS

Beneath the surface

ATLAS control room

Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Oct 3, 19 at 2:38 pm Reason: migrate off flickr / imgur
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Old Dec 15, 13, 3:06 pm
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Mattress Running in Edinburgh

Hotel 5: Holiday Inn Edinburgh – City West
Points earnt: 797 (base) + 3000 (bonus)
Big Win progress: Completed Stay More and Score, Win in a Weekend, Explore our Brands, Win Big

I spent a while watching the prices of nearby Holiday Inns fluctuate, before pulling the trigger on a 21 day advance booking with a 10% discount for IHG Rewards club members. £58.50 got me a room for one, and nothing else: no wifi, no breakfast. But since I'm local, I didn't need either.

It was another dark and stormy night (gusting 30mph+) when I finally got around to crossing the city, with the impractical combination of rain coming in sideways, and the kind of wind that makes a mockery of umbrellas. So although I'd planned to walk the three or so miles, I opted instead for a bus – helped by the only route that serves my local stop happening to also run past the Holiday Inn. Another £1.50 of expenses, therefore, taking this mattress run to a round £60.

The bus took half an hour or so from mine, so perhaps twenty minutes to Waverley. To be honest, for a tourist visit I can't see this hotel being especially well located, unless the price was very attractive. Nearby features are a petrol station, supermarket and retail park, and whilst some rooms apparently offer views of the castle, mine (501) wasn't so appealing:

Check in took a while due to some paperwork kerfuffle – although I was asked to confirm my address, they didn't enquire as to why I was staying in my own city – and several attempts to sell me on breakfast. I was the only person checking in with three staff at the desk, though, so I imagine it would run smoothly most of the time.

Here's the room, if you've never stayed at a Holiday Inn yet have a strange curiosity about them:

The immediate impression is of less room than the Holiday Inn Expressopodes, but the bathroom turns out to be much larger (partly due to the bath, partly due to a weird excess of space by the sink). Fixtures and fittings were of a better standard, too, such as having an actual wardrobe and a sturdier desk.

I did actually stay the night rather than trying the 'ruffle the bedding, leave the key card behind' approach. Since I've paid anyway, I might as well save on my home heating bill; and having not stumped up the extra for wifi, I was able to get a decent amount of work done without the distraction of the internet.

I didn't get an amazing night's sleep as large fifth floor windows and heavy winds makes for quite the soundtrack, not helped by occasional clunking noises from the heating. Bed was comfortable enough, though, and I do appreciate the choice of pillow firmness that seems to be an IHG standard.
Otherwise, not much to report. I was up fairly early to check out and get on with my life, and chose to walk back having been lazy the previous day. A detour to Waverley to collect some train tickets for further Suffolk-Edinburgh travel (mercifully booked into first class) meant I could make up for the lack of a castle view earlier:

I also got a chance to wander through the obligatory German Christmas market- these are perhaps more numerous in British cities than German ones, now. Resisting bratwurst allowed me to totally justify buying some goodies for lunch, and soon I enough I was home to enjoy them. Still winning.

Last edited by TheFlyingDoctor; Oct 3, 19 at 2:43 pm Reason: migrate off imgur
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Old Dec 16, 13, 2:16 pm
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Is it sad that the only reason I've heard of some of the physics terms you used is because of The Big Bang Theory?

Thanks for the report, FlyingDoctor.
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Old Dec 17, 13, 8:56 am
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Ha, well I imagine some of our frequent flyer jargon would be equally baffling to physicists too. As I mentioned, I think I've long since forgotten what a normal amount of maths or science exposure is. Thanks for reading!
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Old Dec 18, 13, 6:37 pm
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As nice as it is to fly international First Class and visit exotic locales, some of my favorite travel memories are from trips like this, traveling on a budget whilst in pursuit of everything from miles to good times. You're a good writer and I truly enjoyed reading this report, especially the section covering your travels from Bury St Edmunds to London. No simple collection of photos could ever have conveyed so effectively the anxiety and suspense of late trains and close connections experienced on that evening. I breathed a sigh of relief myself when finally your hotel was in sight.

A couple of questions:

One - How quiet are those "rooms" at the T4 Yotel?
And two - What's a “Chancer”?

Thanks again for an enjoyable read. Nicely done, Flying Doctor
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Old Dec 18, 13, 8:52 pm
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Originally Posted by Seat 2A View Post
Thanks again for an enjoyable read. Nicely done, Flying Doctor
I agree great report. I did once stop a night in a pub in Bury St Edmunds - in my train spotter days!!
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Old Dec 19, 13, 5:46 am
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Originally Posted by Seat 2A View Post

A couple of questions:

One - How quiet are those "rooms" at the T4 Yotel?
And two - What's a “Chancer”?

Thanks again for an enjoyable read. Nicely done, Flying Doctor
Glad you enjoyed it! It does seem my writing is at its best when things are going wrong, but maybe one day I'll catch a break and be able to focus purely on positives.

I've stayed at both the Gatwick and Heathrow yotels and have to say that Heathrow is much noisier. I don't find it a problem, though, as it's 'white noise' - just the endless mechanical hum that comes of being in the bowels of a massive airport complex. If you've ever had a cheap berth near the engine room of a ship, you'll be familiar. Fortunately, it's the kind of noise I can tune out and sleep through, unlike, say, rowdy guests. But I suspect it's a common complaint as they offer free earplugs at check-in.

A chancer is British slang for someone who pushes their luck for the chance of a benefit they're not entitled to. Blundering into fasttrack because you don't understand airports, saw a BA logo, and assumed you could use it because you're on a BA ticket, doesn't make you a chancer. Confidently walking up with a flybe ticket and a silver card knowing full well the two don't combine to fast track access does It's not entirely derogatory as a term, since in British culture we have a soft spot for the loveable rogue: provided you're just trying to use charm rather than intimidate your way through, and accept defeat when it comes with a smile on your face.
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