Vienna in the snow

March 21, 2019 – Touring palaces is not high on my list of favorite things to do when traveling, no matter where on the planet. But castles are practically synonymous with Vienna, so I was very glad and grateful that my wife made going to the summer home of the Habsburg royal family a priority on a recent (January, 2019) trip to Vienna. Anticipating a mundane walk-through of dreary old rooms, I was instead delighted to be deeply immersed in European history.

After all, the Habsburg dynasty and rule held sway in Austria for 600 years, ending only a century ago on November 11, 1918 at the close of World War I. The Habsburgs contributed mightily to making Europe rich and powerful.

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1898 Schönbrunn U4 subway station

The U4 subway line took only 15 minutes to reach the palace stop from the Vienna Opera House (Karlsplatz) on the Ring (central Vienna). Even the 1898 Schönbrunn subway station itself is part of history, an Art Nouveau gem designed by famed architect Otto Wagner.

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Schloß Schönbrunn looks better outside with a snow blanket.  But inside it is spectacular!

At 1441 rooms, Schloß Schönbrunn (the symbol “ß” is double-s in German, not to be confused with capital B) is monstrous and not very attractive from the outside.  But the overnight snowfall did what snow does: It made everything look prettier, even that homely pile.

The so-called “Grand” walking tour covered forty of the most important palace rooms and took about two hours to complete at a leisurely pace. At €18 (about $21), it wasn’t cheap, but was in my opinion well worth the investment of time and money.

The tour included an easy-to-use digital audio device keyed to each room and was better, I think, than a tour guide. Each room’s description was thorough and fascinating and could be repeated by the device.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as an impish-looking young boy. The prodigy’s first Viennese performance was at Schloß Schönbrunn in 1762.

We were aghast at the sheer grandeur of every one of the forty spaces, not to mention the building’s history. In one small salon was where six year old Mozart performed for the first time in Vienna for the royal family in 1762. His piano playing was so well-received and complimented by the empress that Mozart reportedly leapt into her lap and kissed her.

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JFK and Khrushchev enter the Schloß Schönbrunn grand ballroom, 1961

Two centuries after Mozart’s Viennese debut performance, President John F. Kennedy and Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev met in 1961 for the first time in the palace’s 40 meter by 10 meter grand ballroom, a trial balloon to thaw the Cold War (the effort failed, notwithstanding the opulent venue).

Opting for a self-guided tour meant we could linger or hurry through each room as we liked. I think the experience was enhanced by the time of year. Snowy, cold mid-winter isn’t exactly high tourist season, though several large Chinese tour groups with guides swooshed through.

Leaving the building, we traipsed through snow slush and mud to the rear for a quick look at the garden. Not much to gawk at in late January, but reportedly gorgeous in season.

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Pastry chefs in Vienna are masters of sugar and chocolate. Yum!

After riding back on the U Bahn train to the Vienna Ring (CBD), we found the famous 1880 coffee house, Cafe Sperl, for a late light lunch. The Sperl is furnished exactly the way it was when opened in 1880. It has always been a favorite spot of Viennese royalty and politicians and civic leaders. I enjoyed the place for its understated elegant ambiance and history, but thought its bill of fare unimaginative and pricy.

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Cafe Sperl, the same in 2019 as it was in 1880.

Austria’s part in starting World War I was reputedly concocted over Sperl coffee by two royal dukes. I can’t say that we planned anything quite that dreadful at the Sperl as we sampled offerings of baked chicken and cream of pumpkin soup.

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A tram at the point of articulation, showing how it is all one long car. The interiors of trams in Vienna are accessible end to end, quite roomy and comfortable. We rode a lot of them.

As the afternoon faded, my wife took me on an extended walking tour on the back streets and alleys surrounding St. Stephen’s cathedral. Passing the church, we got a good view of the omnipresent Habsburg symbol, the double-headed eagle, embedded into the roof.

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Habsburg symbol, the double-headed eagle, in the roof of St. Stephen’s cathedral, a constant reminder to the Almighty of what family funded Vienna’s biggest house of worship.

My feet hurt by then from the day’s walking, and I groused about going with her, but once again, I was happy that I did and later thanked my wife for dragging me along. The little streets were full of well-known and obscure Viennese history, and I was captivated by it all.

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The main pedestrian-only platz (above) that goes on for close to a mile. Reminded me fondly of famed Marienplatz in Munich.

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The snowy scene from our hotel window that January day (2019).

We compressed as much as possible into our short 5-day visit, but we didn’t want to leave.  Neither did our son after a month in residence performing with his college symphony orchestra.

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Vienna e-scooters in the snow weren’t getting any love that morning.

I couldn’t help contrasting Vienna with another fascinating place, Hong Kong. Always in frenetic renewal, Hong Kong is different every time I go there, while Vienna changes slowly and in small increments, like recently adding e-scooters.  The two cities couldn’t be more different in superficial appearance, the old and the new. Yet just beneath Vienna’s serene look of staid permanence lies a vibrant young and modern lifestyle as exciting and interesting as any on earth. We can hardly wait to go back.

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In Vienna, a night at the opera

March 14, 2019 – Continuing my paean to classy, cultured Vienna , which boasts (rightly, in my opinion) the best quality of life on the planet, my wife and I attended the opera on our second night in town at the magnificent Vienna Opera House.

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Vienna State Opera house

I have never been a big fan of this bombastic expression of the fine arts. Thus, when my wife told me several months before our trip that the Vienna Opera website had orchestra seats for €200 each, but that we could instead snag €10 “obstructed view” seats, I opted for the cheap way out.

Of course I acknowledge that a night at the opera, notwithstanding the brilliant Marx Brothers movie, was and is the height of Viennese musical culture. Every opera star since 1869 has performed on the boards of the gorgeous and breathtaking Vienna State Opera stage, and I was looking forward to the experience of, well, just being there, obstructed view or no.

We were delayed arriving, barely making curtain call.  Attendants in fancy dress rushed us up a lavishly-appointed gold elevator and briskly walked us down the right side corridor behind the boxes on the second level.  As we were ushered into the pitch-black anteroom of our box at the very end, I began to wonder where our bad seats were located. Surely not in a closet!

But then, as my eyes adjusted to the darkened theater, I was astonished to realize that we had landed in the premier box directly over the orchestra, the best private box location in the theater.  See my wife pointing to our box in the photo below.

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Our premier box at the Vienna Opera

The permanent box owners (or their guests) were seated at the balcony, with one elevated chair directly behind, already occupied by an elegantly-dressed lady.  Our two seats were also in elevated chairs with comfortable foot rests directly behind her.

Obstructed view, yes, but we had a direct view down onto the orchestra, one of the world’s finest, and a partial view of the stage.  I was startled to realize that we had some of the best seats in the place for €10 each.  We settled in to enjoy Verdi’s “Falstaff”.

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Our view from the “obstructed seats” wasn’t half bad.

Not much takes my breath away after these many decades, but that Vienna Opera experience did. The spectacular hall, the symphony orchestra flawlessly performing Verdi’s gorgeous music, the stunningly beautiful voices, the adoring audience in respectful formal attire: Perfecto! Pure happiness!  I remember thinking: This is civilization.

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The view from our seats of the rest of the house.

It was difficult to get the entire stage in a picture both because of our “obstructed view” seats and because I didn’t want to be caught at that sophisticated venue acting like a dirty American tourist, which I’d have been embarrassingly hard-pressed to disavow had I leaned way out over the box balcony for a photo.

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Yours truly during intermission at the Vienna Opera

At intermission, we stole quickly to one of the many bars and had a ridiculously over-priced glass of ice-cold French Champagne, perfect for the occasion. We sipped and wandered up and down the staircases, noting the fashionable attire of patrons and the sheer grandeur of the hall.

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Intermission at the Vienna Opera
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Intermission at the Vienna Opera

Afterwards, still tingling with opera magic, we relished a late night meal at the Bierteufl cafe and beer hall just a half block from our hotel. The Bierteufl is in the basement of Beethoven House, where the great composer lived for 35 years while in Vienna.

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Bierteufl in the basement of Beethoven House, Vienna

I marveled that Beethoven lived and worked just a stone’s throw from our hotel, a reminder of Vienna’s long and remarkable history of music.

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Quite the cultural contrast to a Vienna opera, the Bierteufl boasted its own distinct airs of Viennese charm, including an astonishing beer list (over 100 selections). We ordered two “vom Faß” (on draft) half liters of their namesake brew, and both were fantastic. I’d love to have time to go back for several weeks in order to drink my way entirely through their extensive offering. I’d then be an expert on Austrian and German beers, though perhaps 20 pounds heavier and bordering on alcoholism.

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Wießwurst and Wießwurstsenf – a delectable combo!

The Bierteufl menu proved equally marvelous to its beer list. My wife ordered a delicious pork soup with noodles and vegetables, but I had an old Bavarian favorite of mine, Wießwurst.

Wießwurst (pronounced “vice-vurst”–the symbol “ß” is double-s in German, not to be confused with capital B) is a scrumptious Bavarian white sausage made from minced veal and pork back bacon, usually flavored with parsley, lemon, mace, onions, ginger, and cardamom. It is always served with a unique sweet Bavarian mustard (Weißwurstsenf) made specially to accompany Weißwurst.

For me, it is comfort food, since I came to savor Weißwurst when living and working in Munich 1975-76. It’s traditionally served in the morning with Weißbier (pronounced “vice-beer” is literally “white beer”, a. yeasty wheat beer served in dramatically tall, skinny glasses).

I felt lucky to find Weißwurst still available for late night dinner since the sausage contains no preservatives and is made fresh daily. My little sausages at Bierteufl were divine!

Wikipedia has an interesting long article on Weißwurst.

Opera and sausage: both exquisite ingredients of Germanic culture, equally important parts of the sumptuous tableau of Viennese life. Vienna is a perennial delight, with rich treasures literally around every corner. I counted us lucky that night to be living that experience on so many levels.

 

Vienna, classy and cultured

March 7, 2019 – Despite four decades of work travel to Europe, I never had a business gig in Vienna until this past January when our son resided there for a month studying music and performing with his college’s 86-piece orchestra.  My wife and I visited Vienna to take in one of his performances and to explore the city. In retrospect.

I can’t believe in a lifetime of global travels that I neglected paying close attention to this most elegant, urbane, and civilized of cities.  I loved the place!  This is the first of several posts on our experience in Vienna, or Wien, in German (“auf Deutsch”).

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Vienna “City Airport Train” from the airport to the center of the city, comfortable and fast.

British Airways may be stingy, but their flight arrived Vienna early. Immigration was a breeze (one person ahead of us in the queue), and we took the City Airport Train (Why is its name in English?) from the airport to Wien Mitte (center of town). It was expensive at €12 each, but a fast 16 minutes nonstop, and convenient (easy to find, easy-to-use ticketing kiosks, and runs every 30 minutes). Cheaper trains are available that make several suburban stops, and taxis are about €36 (I paid €40 for a cab returning to the airport).

We got our bearings and walked 15 minutes to the Mercure Biedermeier Hotel . Wouldn’t have been bad except for the freezing cold drizzle, gusty wind, and cobblestones beating up the wheels on our heavy bags.  Nonetheless, we were psyched just to be there.

The Mercure had our key ready since I’d easily checked in online before leaving Raleigh. It is part of the Accor hotel chain. I had never heard of it, but they boast 750 properties worldwide (“weltweit” in German).  We chose it because our son and his entire college orchestra was staying there.

Turns out Mercure is a mid-range brand of Accor, sort of Hilton Garden Inn-Hyatt Place-Courtyard, although it claims to be full-service in the European way. Accor as a group includes Raffles, Fairmont, Swissotel, and Sofitel—all fine brands. The problem, of course, is none of those brands is strong in the USA and the Accor frequency program is weak, a compound negative for attracting American business travelers.

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Room 373 at our Vienna hotel.

Room 373 was called a “Prestige” accommodation. Very comfortable and solid in the way Germanic hotels often are. Modern and traditional at the same time.  If this level of accommodation was meant to be competing with Hilton Garden Inn, I would choose a Mercure every time.

Jetlagged, we quickly unpacked and went back out for a cold, wet walk to stay awake. In our purposely aimless wanderings we came across a Vienna transit ticket kiosk and purchased 3-day transit passes good on all modes in the city, including the two underground railways, S Bahn and U Bahn.

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A pooch in a patisserie.

We stopped at a fancy, modern patisserie to enjoy an espresso and broetchen (fresh, out-of-this-world-delicious bread as only the Germans and Austrians can bake it). The Austrians love their dogs, and the mutts go everywhere with them. As we left, I snapped a photo through the window of a dog in its Viennese owner’s arms.

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Hofer, the Austrian Aldi brand name. We thought Hofer grocery selections superior to U.S. Aldis.

Right beside the hotel we entered a Hofer grocery store (the Austrian version of Aldi) to stock up on beer and more fresh bread before returning to the hotel.

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Our hotel in Vienna, a Mercure.

This Mercure was very nice, just what we wanted. Not luxurious, but unpretentious and very solid and comfortable, with the usual hotel nits (e.g., mediocre shower pressure and the shower head kept tilting down, the latter problem remedied within 30 minutes of letting the front desk know). I’d definitely stay with them again on business or leisure.

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U Bahn stop near our hotel.  Transit was always close and easy to use.

Being back in a European city reminded me of how great it is to be car-free because public transit works so well. The 3-day Vienna Transit passes were €17.10 each, about $21, which is a paltry $7/day for all the transportation anyone needs. With the dense network of underground rail, tram, and buses, who needs a car? Just get on a tram or underground or bus, with no need to fight traffic, no need to fill a car with gas, no need to find and pay for parking, no need to pay for auto insurance, no need to pay for licensing and registering a vehicle, no need to pay for maintaining a car, and no need to pay vehicle property taxes.  Why don’t Americans understand how costly and tiresome owning a car is?

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Vienna street-level trams (light rail in the USA) everywhere connected to the U Bahn and S Bahn underground railways.

We got everywhere easily and quickly thanks to the spiderweb of transit services and their high frequency. For example, the Vienna U Bahn trains run 24 hrs, with 4 minute headways early morning until late at night. And the trains are always packed, even running every 4 minutes. 

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U Bahn trains are always packed.

It’s fun and relaxing to get around when public transit works this well, something almost every American city lacks.

 

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Vienna transit map, a spiderweb of great bus, tram, and underground services.

What’s more traditional Viennese fare than wienerschnitzel and homemade wurst (sausages) with sauerkraut and Roesti (roasted potatoes)? We enjoyed those dishes, served our first night at a restaurant the locals favor (so local, in fact, that it only took cash in payment), and washed down with local Goesser lager and a glass of Gruener Veltliner in the company of our son and his friend.  Perfect!

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Wienerschnitzel with traditional Viennese fixins’!

Afterwards, we all walked through beautiful St. Stephensplatz. My wife and I later visited the 150 year old opera house before jetlag got the better of us.

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Gorgeous St. Stephensplat in Vienna on a cold January night

But before ending this epistle recounting our first day in Vienna, I have to comment on the e-scooter revolution.  It has reached Vienna, with Bird and Lime scooters competing hard for Viennese first and last mile connectivity to public transit.

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The old and the new, cheek by jowl in Vienna.

Given how dense the urban transit network is in Vienna, it is quite easy to walk to a bus, tram, U Bahn, or S Bahn stop from just about anywhere downtown. Thus I was surprised the scooters were so popular.  Cost starts at €1 ($1.14), about the same as in the USA.  Perhaps people are using them for short trips more direct and faster than using transit.

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The side of the famous Vienna Opera House.

On our second night in Vienna, we attended a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the magnificent Opera House and had quite an unexpectedly luxurious evening, about which more later.

The hassle of flying from a “spokes” city

In a recent post examining Singapore Airlines’ world’s-longest-nonstop flight EWR/SIN, I didn’t just appear out of thin air at Newark.  I had to first fly from Raleigh (RDU) to Newark.

Which highlights a problem for those of us who live in a “spokes” city in a flying world dominated by airline hub cities.  Raleigh/Durham isn’t big enough to support many overseas connections.

Raleigh/Durham International Airport has come a long way in the last few decades, with more than 400 daily arrivals and departures to 66 destinations on 11 airlines. Raleigh now serves London and Paris nonstop daily with a 777 and 767, respectively, and both flights make money, according to the operating airlines, American and Delta.

But to reach most of America and most international destinations, I have to first fly to a city like Newark, and that is a pain.  United flies direct to cover those 416 miles RDU/EWR, but if I prefer another airline, then I have to connect to get to the connection city.

To cut my costs for the Singapore trip, for instance, I used an AAdvantage award and thus had to connect both ways through Charlotte just to get to Newark and back home.  Here are my real-time notes going and returning which illustrate how traveling even those relatively short 416 miles is a chore:

RDU/CLT/EWR [Written the morning of my Singapore Air flight EWR/SIN]

Yesterday afternoon I flew Raleigh to Newark on American Airlines via Charlotte. My Singapore Airlines flight Newark (EWR) to Singapore (SIN) departs at 9:45 AM, and no flights from RDU were early enough to connect this morning. So I booked a room at the only on-airport hotel at Newark, the Marriott, thinking i i could walk there.

Normally I could have, but the arctic temps of the so-called “Polar Vortex” were still abating. It was in the low teens last night, so I had to call the hotel shuttle rather than walk.

Getting to Newark through Charlotte last night, CLT airport looked shabby and shopworn. What happened to North Carolina pride? The place had the feel of a Greyhound station. Particularly shameful since it used to be our home-grown Piedmont Airline’s proud hub.

Finally boarded my CLT/EWR flight, albeit late on account of late crew arriving to gate, on an older AA A320 with no charging plugs.

And once again, my AAdvantage Million Miler Lifetime Gold status made me Group 4—but actually group 8—after wheelchairs, Concierge Key, Group 1, uniformed military, Group 2, parents with small kids, and Group 3. Jeez, half the passengers were on board by the time my supposed “priority” Group 4 began frantically to search for the few remaining overhead luggage space.

On board Charlotte to Newark flight, everybody was on laptops and phones, so most window shades were down. These days Smartphones rule eyeballs. It was gloomy, like being in a dark cave. I love looking out of airplane windows, but that didn’t happen yesterday.

The Charlotte-Newark flight arrived last night at the EWR A concourse, so had to find my way to the Marriott from there.

Newark airport looked more like a developing nation than most developing nation airports. Terminal A is a mishmash of ugly shops, and whoever designed the TSA security line should be sued for incompetence. There is no room for people to move simultaneously out and in to the terminal. It’s insane, though given the small space, I guess that’s all they could do.

Despite the crowding and rat’s maze and the rundown appearance, the place was hopping. Maybe most people don’t care whether an airport keeps up appearances (Charlotte redux).

Got the Airtrain from Terminal A to Parking P4, and called the Marriott en route. Miracle! The bus was actually just pulling up when the jam-packed Airtain arrived at P4. And there were cheerful, well-trained staff at both ends of the Airtrain journey who helped me get to the right place. That human touch canceled out a lot of the bad impression of EWR appearances.

Nice big-ish room at the Marriott with two walls of windows.  Enjoyed a G&T at the way-way-overcrowded Marriott restaurant. People were offering hefty tips to get in like it was the Copa or something in 1955. Ridiculous. I’ve never seen an airport hotel restaurant, mediocre by definition, that demanded reservations to get in, and it was a slow Friday night.

Liked the Marriott room: quiet and everything comfy despite downstairs crowding, and I slept soundly.

This morning I was checked out at 6:59 AM, but the scheduled 7:00 AM shuttle never came. Lots of folks waiting before I got there, too. By 7:15 when a bus arrived, too many were waiting, and the driver had to leave some folks. They were angry, as were people who did make it because they had cut getting to their flights too close, including two sets of pilots. I was glad that I had decided to leave myself an extra hour of time.  Pretty soon I was checked in to my Singapore Air flight and headed to security, which is another story.

Of course if I lived in a big city or had been able to connect the same day to my Singapore flight, all this rigmarole and expense flying to Newark and staying at the hotel would not have been necessary. It costs me an extra day plus the expenses.

EWR/CLT/RDU

Despite sitting in the last row on my Singapore flight arriving back to Newark, I was the first one out of immigration after we landed, thanks to moving fast, plus being registered with Homeland Security as a Global Entry member (which allows me to scan my passport and fingerprints and then go, avoiding long lines at Immigration), plus having no checked bags. The plane landed early at 4:50 AM, and I was out of immigration and customs by 5:20 AM.

Immediately took the Newark Airport Airtrain to Terminal A and asked at the American Airlines Priority counter if I could please stand by for earlier flights. Sure, they said.

Stand-by boarding passes in hand, I zoomed through the Terminal A TSA Pre line and at the gate was put on a 6:20 AM flight to Charlotte, with a stand-by connection at 9:25 AM CLT to RDU. Thus I boarded my AA flight to CLT at 5:50 AM, exactly one hour after landing from Singapore, not bad!

In Charlotte I was just given a seat on the 9:25AM CLT/RDU flight which arrived RDU about 10:00 AM. That was a four hour time advantage because I hustled to make it happen; my original flight was scheduled to leave EWR at 10:00 AM and the connecting flight was due to arrive Raleigh at 2:00 PM.

All good, but even with over two million people living in the Research Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill served by RDU airport, we are still a “spokes” city and have to connect to access direct flights to most of the world from here at considerable expense and time.  It’s a hassle.

British Airways, master of miserliness

On a recent itinerary in Premium Economy from Raleigh (RDU) to Vienna (VIE), I chose an American Airlines code share fare that connected through Heathrow (LHR), with the LHR/VIE segments via British Airways flights. The Premium Economy fare was ostensibly for Premium Economy comfort all the way to Vienna on both the American Airlines and British Air flights. AA did a nice job of fulfilling that promise on the RDU/LHR/RDU legs. Apparently, however, BA didn’t get the memo that we had paid, well, a premium for Premium Economy. On the BA segments, we sat in the back of the bus and had to pay for our seat assignments and everything else, just as I wrote about last year.

In my previous post, I described American Airlines’ Premium Economy (PE) cabin between Raleigh (RDU) and London (LHR). PE offerings are, in my opinion, cause for celebration for frequent overseas flyers as a way to avoid the crippling discomfort of international economy seats without paying the astronomical fares normally demanded for business class. On a code share involving a domestic US leg or an intra-European segment, I realize, of course, that relatively short connecting flights are not going to offer the comfort and perks of the long-haul’s PE cabin. Just the same, I paid a PE fare for all segments and therefore expected, at least, advance seat assignments and a glass of orange juice on the short hauls.

Not on BA.

Here are my real-time notes connecting through Heathrow to British Airways both going and returning:

LHR/VIE 26-Jan-19

American Airlines must have a lot of fluff built into the Raleigh/London schedules be-cause we pushed back from RDU 7 minutes late and arrived Heathrow about an hour early. I am not complaining. I was worried about making our 90-minute connection to British Airways London/Vienna, but now, two and a half hours provides ample time.

Unfortunately, we arrived on the ramp (no gate) and so had to cram into a bus to the terminal. Literally cram: I couldn’t move by the time the door closed.

A long walk from the ramp-side entry door at Heathrow’s Terminal 3 led eventually to a TSA-style security screen that required removal of all the usual fluids and electronics, excepting shoes. The security screeners were wonderfully civil and helpful, which took the sting out of the process.

Then another rat’s maze to get into Terminal 3 proper where we now wait at one of the two Priority Pass lounges in T3, this one called No.1 Club.

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Priority Pass Club in LHR Terminal 3 (No.1 Club)

Pretty easy, really, to connect through Heathrow, despite its reputation for not being particularly passenger-friendly. The Brexit enigma made me wonder, though: How will leaving the EC impact flyers jumping through the hoops of security, immigration, and customs with mundane connections at LHR like this one to Vienna?

Boarding for our BA flight to Vienna was by bus, just as when we arrived. Packed in like sardines, we lumbered and lurched around the airport, eventually reaching our plane on the tarmac. Then a schlep up the air stairs with our bags. Jet bridges are so much faster and more convenient.

Standard issue A320 with 3-3 seating on a milk run London to Vienna. I paid $39 extra each months ago to have access to emergency row seats with better legroom on British Airways because that’s part of BA’s racket.

Here at Heathrow we were offered an opportunity to upgrade to what was called “business class” for £115 per person each way, but we declined. Glad we did. The front cabin has the same 3-3 seating as the back of the plane. Only difference is BA does not sell the center seats up front and brings free drinks.

A shameless rip-off. There were plenty of empty center seats in the back, though no free beverages.

Once in the air, I was looking forward to a Diet Coke. But British Airways has retired the word “complimentary” from its lexicon. I mentioned before that BA charges for all advance seat selection. Similarly, even water costs £1.80. From her backpack, my wife retrieved the bottle of water she had filled in the terminal (after, of course, we cleared the security screen that forbids liquids) to keep us hydrated.

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BA charges for everything, including hot water.

BA in Europe coach even charges for hot water. That’s to ensure no one can bring their own tea bags.

BA is in the process of removing the special tray that folds down in the middle seat of so-called “business” class. That tray made the space quite useful. Now it’s just an empty chair, which, of course, is desperately needed when your business class is 30 inch pitch.

The flight was not too painful for my wife because she had one of the few empty seats next to her. I was not so lucky, but, being jet-lagged, I dozed through much of the flight. Given that British Airways provides nothing for free, I didn’t miss anything. We were glad to reach Vienna and get off the cramped plane with minimalist service. It could just as well have been Ryan Air.

VIE/LHR 31-JAN-19

We left a 4:15 AM wake-up call at the hotel and had reserved a 5:00 AM taxi to the airport last night. The cabbie was early, and we made it to the Vienna Airport by 5:20 AM, the only time on this trip we were in an automobile [about which more in a later post]. My wife and I would have taken public transit, but nothing ran early enough to get us to the airport in time for our 7:50 AM British Airways A320 flight back to London.

The taxi from the hotel to the airport was a fixed price of €40 (about US$46) according to the front desk, but the cab driver looked pretty sour to receive just that. I felt a little bad about not tipping him until remembering that €40 would have paid for nearly a week of Vienna transit passes for both of us.

I had used the BA app on my phone to check in the night before, so the British Airways counter agent had only to verify our passports in the computer and print the four boarding passes (BA Vienna to London, and then American Airlines London to RDU).

A TSA-style security screen in Vienna surprised me, but the personnel were efficient and friendly. I forgot that type of security is the norm most places now.

I checked the Priority Pass Club app on my phone for lounges in Vienna and found one close to our gate. It was a bit sterile, looking vaguely antiseptic, but who cared? As usual, the club provided a relaxing, private place to rest, have a coffee and light breakfast, and recharge my smartphone. We ate heartily, knowing not to expect anything by way of food or drink for free on our BA flight despite having paid for Premium Economy.

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Priority Pass Club in Vienna

Priority Pass Club membership is a great perk. It comes with the American Express Platinum Card, and it’s been a lifesaver in many, many airports worldwide. RDU will have “arrived” when it finally gets one.

The BA flight boarded on time and was close to full. The chatty pilot then announced a one-hour delay due to freezing fog both in Vienna and London, delaying takeoff and also getting a London Heathrow landing slot. We sat in Vienna until moving to get de-iced and then, finally, airborne.

En route to London, the British Airways flight attendants were, well, very attentive. Didn’t help us a great deal, however, since, as I reported going into Vienna, BA now charges for everything, including hot water (because some customers have the temerity to bring along their own tea bags from home). My seatmate ordered a simple hot tea with lemon and was charged £2.85, an amount that would have bought an entire box of teabags at any grocery on Britain.

I asked for a glass of water and was looked at askance. After a dramatic pause and long gaze at me, the flight attendant said, in a carefully modulated tone clearly meant as a subtle warning, that it would be tap water.

“Will it kill me?” I asked, sarcastically.

“I don’t think so, sir,” came the terse reply.

“Then bring it, please!” I said.

He did, though not until making me wait another half hour.

The tiny glass of slightly cloudy water can be seen in the photo below. I asked my wife to file a lawsuit against British Airways for me should I become ill or die soon.

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Cloudy tap water on British Airways, all you get on BA for paying a Premium Economy fare.

I wasn’t overly concerned about missing our London connection because we had three hours to make it. Two hours would suffice, I figured, and it did, despite the long walk through Terminal 3 and the second TSA-style security screen for connecting passengers.

Wasn’t one security screen sufficient? After all, both Austria and the United Kingdom are EC members. Well, for a few more weeks, anyway. pending the Brexit outcome.

We located one of two Priority Pass Clubs in Heathrow Terminal 3 and passed the time there before the long, long march to Gate 42 to board our LHR/RDU flight, the most distant Terminal 3 gate.

Looking back, despite the good airport experiences connecting at Heathrow and departing Vienna, next time I will avoid a connection that involves flying on British Airways. One time enduring the airline’s uncomfortable confined cabin and in-flight parsimony was enough for me. Better airline choices abound, so screw BA.

Or maybe Brexit will moot my complaint.

American Airlines does a good Premium Economy

Recently (late January) I had an opportunity to fly with my wife in AA’s new Premium Economy cabin RDU to London Heathrow and return.  Here below are the notes I drafted in real time going over and returning.

I am a latecomer to appreciating real Premium Economy (PE) airline offerings.  I’ve been lucky to fly often in international First and Business Class for decades, and I certainly prefer Business Class over any kind of coach cabin.  However, I have discovered that PE can be very comfortable—not just more tolerable than regular economy—and the price difference between Premium Economy and Business is gigantic.  PE is usually about $500 more than coach, whereas Business is thousands more.

To date, I’ve sampled and blogged about my experiences on PE aboard Cathay Pacific (twice), Air New Zealand, Delta, and Singapore Airlines.  This post records my impressions of what American Airlines has put together for Premium Economy.

AA174 RDU/LHR

First impression: Quite roomy and comfortable. Light years better than coach.

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American Airlines’ very comfortable Premium Economy chair on AA174 RDUU/LHR.

American’s Premium Economy seats are, to me, way more comfortable than ones I’ve experienced on Cathay Pacific, Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines, or Delta. Frankly, I am surprised to be saying that because the other four carriers have installed very comfortable PE seats. I didn’t expect AA to have a noticeably better chair.

Seats in PE on this 777 are 8-across (2-4-2), two fewer across the fuselage than the 10 stuffed into coach (3-4-3). 2-4-2 seems to be the standard Premium Economy 777 configuration for the airlines that offer it. Each seat is plenty wide, nearly comparable to 737 domestic first class seats.

By comparison, consider how narrow and cramped are the ten seats across in economy.

Seat pitch seems roomier than on the other four airline offerings I’ve flown, too. If the actual dimensions are the same, then American has somehow made it feel more distant from the row ahead than other airlines.

Well, the seat, at least, was superior to previous experiences. Boarding was not so hot.

PE was called as Group 4 (of 7 groups), though it was actually Group 5 because the super-duper-elite “Concierge” level people on AA are called ahead of everybody else (I was shocked that 15-20 Concierge folks pushed forward to clamber aboard—that’s a big number of tippy-top tier elitists even for this big plane).

Then Group 1 (Business Class), Group 2 (the next level down AA super-elite tier, but still above most people), Group 3 (AA Executive Platinum and Platinum: several tens of passengers; I thought they would never stop coming), and finally our Group 4, Premium Economy and AA Gold. I swear that a third of the plane had boarded ahead of us, and I was worried the overhead space would be gone by the time we found our seats (13A and 13C).

Sure enough, a lot of the luggage space was taken, but we still managed to get our bags and backpacks stowed overhead quickly. Just in time, for the hordes followed after us.

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Great legroom in 13AC on AA in PE!  My feet didn’t reach the bulkhead.

We are in the first row of PE on the port (left) side, 13AC. Lots of privacy and lots of space (my feet don’t reach the bulkhead, a lot more legroom than in the bulkhead row of domestic first class). We also have two windows, which feels like a real luxury and is better than most Business Class seats.

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Our seats, 13A (window) and 13C (aisle), were private and had 2 windows just for us.

Disappointingly, there was no boarding beverage of any kind in Premium Economy, let alone my hoped-for Champagne. Because we are cheek-by-jowl behind Business Class, I had a literal front row seat watching the puny boarding beverage service to the privileged flyers up front. It was a choice of coolish-but-not-chilled Champagne (so I overhead someone complain) served in flimsy plastic glasses or warmish orange juice, both distributed frenetically and impersonally by the cabin crew with frozen smiles (I observed): the very picture of perfunctory.

No hope of a refill, either, as the Business Class flight attendants never went back to their flock. Jeez, $6000 for Business Class, and the poor saps in sharp end couldn’t even get a second glass of lukewarm Champagne before takeoff.

So much for being at Concierge level, too. Board first, but then you are just a peon.

On my long-ago 1989 Concorde flight between JFK and London, British Airways poured unlimited quantities of properly chilled Dom Perignon and offered several first growth Bordeaux in superior vintages (at the time, the superlative 1982 and the softer, but delicious, 1983).

You know, I have a home video I transferred to DVD of that Concorde flight with me and a friend in seats 1A and 1B, and I should post it to YouTube for posterity, though it does show us in our cups by the time we hit the tarmac at Heathrow. It was a remarkable experience, both going over and returning.

Back to what you get these days in the supposed premium cabins of American Airlines, flight attendants did bring us bottles of water just before the door closed. Not Champagne, but at least we would be hydrated.

Once off the ground, a miracle: Beverage carts appeared in the PE cabin as soon as we leveled off.

Champagne, please, we pleaded!

Alas, AA doesn’t deem PE passengers worthy of even a cheap but satisfying Cava ($10 retail) or a modest but tasty Prosecco (a mere $6 at Costco). Bereft of bubbles, I ordered two Bombay Sapphire G&Ts to quench my thirst. The cabin crew obliged my request for lime to do it right, and I was, at last, on my way to properly celebrating our vacation.

The advanced-selected chicken, mushrooms and pasta dish arrived. I couldn’t honestly tell you whether it was better than just okay, because by then the gin had hit my system. I was hungry, and the stuff tasted pretty good.

After dinner was cleared, I discovered there is but a single mid-cabin lavatory on our portside aisle between Business Class and the tail. That’s stingy and not good on an International flight. PE customers must traipse back though the poor folks jammed into cattle class to reach a bathroom.

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The small and intimate Premium Economy cabin on AA174 777 RDU/LHR

It’s a short flight, just 6.5 hours, so I need to get some shut-eye, with just 4.5 hours to go (already passing Sydney, Nova Scotia headed for Newfoundland, and then Greenland, and later Ireland). This flight seems so tame compared to Singapore Airlines’ 19 hour flight Newark to Singapore nonstop (see last week’s post).

More later when they wake me for a breakfast tray of fruit and Greek yogurt. Maybe the gin taste will be out of my mouth by then.

American Airlines must have a lot of fluff built into the Raleigh/London schedules because we pushed back from RDU 7 minutes late and arrived Heathrow about an hour early. I am not complaining. I was worried about making our 90-minute connection to British Airways London/Vienna, and now we have ample time.

Leaving the aircraft, my fleeting last thought of the flight was efficient, painless, and comfortable (well, in the Premium Economy cabin, at least). Only complaint was the AA flight attendants. They did their jobs well, but coolly, just going through the paces. No sign of warmth, joy, or happiness in their profession like I see on Emirates, Singapore, and even on Delta.

AA173 LHR/RDU

Our Raleigh flight left from Gate 42 at Heathrow’s Terminal 3, as far as one can go to a gate.  Luckily, we were connecting from a British Airways flight from Vienna that arrived at Terminal 3 (about which more in a future post), but it was still a long walk. Once there, I was assured our flight (AA173), scheduled to depart at 1235pm, would begin boarding at 1145am. The crew didn’t arrive until about that time, though, spoiling our chance to settle in early.

When Gate 42 staff did finally call for boarding, we in Premium Economy were again merely Group 4. Concierge Key customers (the tippy-top tier AA elite category) boarded first–and with proper attitude–followed by groups 1, 2, and 3. So once again we were actually the fifth group to board. Due to the light load, that meant that almost all passengers boarded ahead of Premium Economy customers. My AAdvantage Lifetime Gold status, earned from being a Million Miler (not quite two million) on American, didn’t buy me any respect, either.

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AA Concierge Key flyers get to board ahead of eeeeeeverybody!

I felt slighted again, just as I did when we left RDU, given PE is touted as a product vastly superior to coach, and it costs more. However, the truth is that plenty of overhead luggage space was still available by the time we plopped down in our wonderful bulkhead seats, 13AC, the same ones we claimed on the eastbound leg.

Since PE gets no boarding drink service, what was I worried about, anyway? We didn’t miss a damn thing by boarding last. It’s just the principal to me, a Rodney Dangerfield can’t-get-no-respect kind of thing, plus my obsessive-compulsive nature acting up.

We left the gate early and were soon taking off,. Once more I reveled in having two windows adjacent to seats 13A and 13C, a luxury if you get a thrill looking out while flying, as I always have.

American Airlines provided perfunctory service again, just as going over, on the London-Raleigh leg, but efficient. The crew must have quaffed double espressos, so fast and fidgety were they to distribute drinks and meals and then to clean up as soon as we reached altitude. The flight attendants disappeared for 5 hours on an 8.5 hours flight right after the meal service except for once coming around with tiny little paper dishes of chocolate ice cream.

Very, very light load. Business Class was totally full of upgraded Concierge Key customers, Premium Economy a bit more than half full, with economy a barren wasteland of empty seats. This would have been the time (late January) to buy a cheap ticket and fly in coach.

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Very light load in Premium Economy coming home from LHR to RDU in late January.

Mid-flight, I went to the rear galley to get a Diet Coke since nobody came to me, and while there I asked about the empty coach cabin. The very senior flight attendants (they looked close to my age, and I’m ancient) said this flight is lightly booked from after New Year’s until Spring Break, and then fully booked all year until after Christmas.

I assume they know. The FAs are all Raleigh-based and hold enough seniority to consistently win the RDU/LHR flights in their monthly bids. Raleigh to London and back is a good run (called a “line of flying” in airline parlance). No going all over the place staying in a different city every night.

If I was looking for the least-worst seats in coach on this 777-200 configuration, they would be the two bulkheads seats on the left and the right immediately behind the three rows of Premium Economy. Most of coach is a miserable 3-4-3 setup of ten seats across. The bulkhead row right behind the PE cabin, however, has just two seats on the left and right sides. Still horribly narrow and uncomfortable, but the least worst, as I said, and with a bit of extra legroom.

American’s configuration of the 777-200 aircraft used on this route has a single lavatory on the port side in the coach mid-cabin and two on the starboard aisle, something I missed when we were flying over. Since our seats are on the port aisle, and since Premium Economy passengers are not allowed to go forward to the business class toilets, we must compete for the one on this side halfway back in economy or try to cross over to reach the other two.

On this flight, the portside mid-cabin lav had an overflowing trash container and was never serviced during the flight, another sign this crew is coasting. It also had a broken grab handle, which I didn’t report to the cabin crew for fear they would close the toilet as “out of order” due to the loose handle being a safety hazard.

Back in my nice big Premium Economy seat, I watched a movie and charged my phone, but had trouble finding and then using the plugs for the charger and the headset. It is a mystery why, in these brand new Premium Economy seats, AA put both outlets waaaay in the back of the inset book/phone holder. It is totally dark and impossible to see how to plug stuff in without using the flashlight on my phone.

Even a helpful flight attendant had trouble figuring it out and then reaching the outlets. Why would such a poor design be part of brand new chairs? It’s a typical airline mistake.

American provided an impressively large, over-the-ear headset for PE passengers, but it is not noise-canceling like the Bose sets provided to Business Class travelers, which makes it hard to listen to movies and music. I retrieved my own Bose noise-canceling headphones from my backpack and thereafter had a pleasant movie-watching experience. I advise anyone who books AA in PE to bring your own noise-canceling headset.

Thinking about the difference between Premium Economy on American and PE on Singapore, in my opinion AA has the superior seat with so-so service, while Singapore shines in top-flight service with a passable seat.

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Business Class on AA173 LHR/RDU: Yes, better than PE, but at great cost.

In sum, I would definitely book AA in PE again.  The seats alone are worth it despite the mundane service.  Business Class it ain’t, not by a long shot.  But neither is it Sardine Class.  It is a very comfortable in-between, and American Airlines’ Premium Economy is off to a good start.

10,288 miles nonstop on Singapore Airlines in Premium Economy

FEBRUARY 7. 2019 — For a three-day trip to Singapore this past week (just arrived home yesterday, February 6), I booked the Singapore Airlines nonstop flight from Newark. It is, at the moment, the longest flight on earth at between 17 and 19 hours, depending. Singapore Airlines in Premium Econmy makes flying nonstop 10,288 miles better than merely bearable.

Although it saves substantial time over alternate ways to get to Singapore from the U.S. East Coast, and even with 30 years of experience flying ultra-long legs, I wondered if I could endure it, especially since I opted for Premium Economy, not Business Class. The A350-900ULR aircraft used on the nonstop is fitted out with only Business Class and Premium Economy seats—no economy class at all.  PE fares were far cheaper than Business, so…

Bottom line: No sweat.  I flew over, arriving Sunday night, and flew home late Tuesday night.  Kudos to Singapore Airlines for making Premium Economy service as painless as possible.  It was better than just okay; I would do it again. Read my full report here.