Category: Uncategorized

Delta 767s in Delta One

Delta Air Lines puts just four seats across (1-2-1) in its international business cabin on the narrowest of widebodies, the 767 airplane, but it still feels tight. I thought all those Delta 767s were about the same, but recently I flew in Delta One on two of Delta’s 767 models, the 300 and the 400, and I was surprised to discern a comfort difference.

Delta Air Lines calls its international business class cabin “Delta One” to infer it is First Class, the luxurious way we used to fly going overseas.  Of course Delta One is not international First Class. That level of service is mostly dead now, and certainly gone from Delta, which only half-heartedly offered it when they began flying across the ponds that separate the continents.

Nonetheless, Delta One is quite comfortable on most aircraft equipped with the biz class chairs and service, so maybe I grouse too much.  I certainly love flying Delta One over any coach option.  My impressions of flying on two Delta 767 aircraft equipped with international cabins follows.

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Delta 767-300ER Delta One cabin showing staggered seats

767-300ER – In the Delta One cabin, I selected 1A. Seats are staggered on all Delta 767 aircraft to make them fit in what some analysts call a herringbone pattern.  Thus only the odd-numbered rows have windows directly adjacent to the windows on the port and starboard sides.  Even-numbered row seats are spaced about an arm’s length away from the windows.

The interior of the plane I flew was tired and wearing out. IFE (in-flight entertainment) system appeared to be an early generation with tiny screen and poor resolution. Looked like an old TV monitor. Blurry. How quickly I have been spoiled by the very large, razor-sharp, high-def LCD screens in more modern cabins.

The standard Delta One headphones are not noise-canceling on any Delta flight, but I always take my superb Bose headphones on long flights. I turned the standard issue headphones back to the flight attendants as soon as I boarded.

Cheap “Champagne” was barely chilled and had a repulsive flavor like I imagine hair tonic would taste. Plenty of legroom, but the seat was not comfortable: It was too narrow. SeatGuru.com says mine seat was 21” wide.  Maybe so, but it felt cramped.

The LA-based crew were all very nice and efficient. All smiles. They made it a good flight even if on a tired airplane that badly needs refreshing.

767-400ER – In Delta One, seat 3A. JFK to Rome.

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767-400ER Delta One seat 3A

Much more modern interior than the 767-300 aircraft. And with a bigger front cabin. Ancient tiny screens were too far away, not bright enough, and too fuzzy to watch movies easily.

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767-400ER Delta One cabin

Seats, like the -300 airplane, were too narrow, but the cabin somehow felt roomy and comfortable. The hundred year old Flight Attendants (in other words, close to my own age) up front were friendly, competent, and really cared. I find Delta FAs, always very senior on long overseas flights, usually make a positive difference in the overall experience.

Really great dry Prosecco was served as boarding “Champagne” and properly chilled.  Real French Champagne (Gardet) was popped open after takeoff. 8 hrs, 48 mins to Rome meant lots of time to watch a movie and then sleep.

A nit: I was the first person to board in biz class, but five seats were already occupied. When I asked a flight attendant who they were, I got a shrug. I assumed the FAs were embarrassed to admit Delta nonrevs upgraded to Delta One had snuck on early. The one in 2A ahead of me had already taken all the overhead luggage space over my seat, which irritated me.

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767-400ER Delta One cabin

Not much surprises me on planes any more, but the meal was delicious, as good or better than one in a fine restaurant on the ground. Better than the meals on Qatar Airways or Cathay Pacific, and those airlines really put on the dog in business class. Wonderful carrot soup and cold shrimp starter. Was this really Delta?

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Excellent Gardet French Champagne complemented the plump and tasty Maryland crabcake entree with mashed potatoes and asparagus and a decent remoulade sauce. Cherry vanilla ice cream followed with hot chocolate-caramel topping. One scoop was plenty, and plenty good.

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Watched a movie (“Green Book”)—or, more accurately, listened to it while squinting at the faraway, tiny screen. Then put the seat flat and slept for a few hours. Joe Brancatelli warned me the business class seats on Delta 767s were short, and I didn’t think it would bother me because I am short. But it did. I barely fit into the space in front of me.  Same on both 767 models.

The cabin was quiet and dark wearing my Bose headphones and heavy Tumi eye shades (part of the strange Tumi hardcase amenity kit Delta provides to Delta One customers).

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767-400ER Delta One cabin with itty-bitty screens

SeatGuru.com reports that Delta has four 767-300 international configurations (26-36 Delta One chairs), but just a single 767-400 layout (40 Delta One seats). I must have flown in one of the oldest 767-300ER airplanes.

Delta just announced new non-suites seats for its 767-300 and 767-400 airplanes that are actually an inch narrower than current (20” rather than 21”).  This seems like a step backward in comfort based on my recent experience. And the length of the new seats is no better.  Yet somehow the overall dimensions limit the 767-400 cabin to just 34 new Delta One chairs versus 40 seats now.

Present or future configuration, I prefer Delta’s 777, A350, and A330 Delta One cabins and seats to either of the 767 models.  But of the two I just experienced, I’d eagerly opt for the 767-400ER over the older model.

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A tale of two Singapore hotels

March 28, 2019 — I first came to Singapore in the 1980s to consult when it was cheap and booming like nothing I’ve ever seen before or since. The pace was even more frenetic than Hong Kong. I loved it then and do now, though it’s no longer inexpensive. in fact it’s now one of the costliest cities on earth.

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Singapore at Gardens By The Sea

In the 1980s through early 2000s I stayed at luxe hotel properties in the bustling business district, but now I prefer more modest and interesting hotels, and recently opted to try two very different places in Singapore’s always-fascinating Little India.  Here are my real-time notes describing and contrasting the two hotels.

Staying first for a couple of nights at the Parkroyal Hotel on Kitchener, a Pan Pacific property. The lobby needs sprucing up and has a weird incense odor that permeates every nook and cranny, but my room is quite large and comfortable (no incense odor here). The bathroom is roomy, too, with a great shower. The hotel hallways are nearly as wide as the Champs-Élysées. I prepaid to get a cheap rate and feel it’s definitely well worth it.

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The Parkroyal is a short block off Serangoon Road in the heart of Little India. The area’s lively pulse and high energy quickens my step even in the relentless heat.

After a couple of nights at the Parkroyal, I walked from one hotel to the other (a newish Hilton Garden Inn) after breakfast as I had planned.

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Little India, Singapore

The Hilton Garden Inn on Serangoon is actually also a block off Serangoon on Belilios, a 15-minute walk from the Parkroyal on Kitchener. The hotel is not easy to see unless you are looking for it. I found it okay because I checked the location on my phone before setting out.

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Big screw-up on my part. Must have made the reservation for Feb 6, but it’s Feb 5. Hilton GI took pity and found a room for me on the busiest day of their year despite my date error. Today is Chinese New Year.

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Lobby area, Hilton Garden Inn Serangoon, Little India, Singapore

The HGI is a “Limited service” property.  The hotel industry now prefers the term “focused service” which means no bellhops or room service. In HGI’s case, they do all have a restaurant. Hampton, also owned by Hilton and also a “limited service” brand, has a free breakfast, but no on-site restaurants.

My day room ended up costing a few dollars more than I had planned, but I smiled and thanked the front desk manager profusely because it was entirely my fault. I booked it in a hurry just before I went to Austria two weeks ago and selected the wrong date, easy to do when my flight technically leaves tomorrow (just after midnight tonight).

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Room 505, GHI Serangoon, showing tiny dimensions

I am in room 505 at HGI. Initial impressions: ultra-modern and super-clean property. Rooms tiny, especially compared to Parkroyal. But very bright and cheery.

The Parkroyal room was far larger, but underlit and always a bit gloomy. Very nice and well-trained staff at HGI. Parkroyal staff was always cheerful and ready to help, but a clear difference at the Hilton in professional appearances and training.

Bottom line so far: I like both, and despite the crisp modernity of the HGI, I’d choose the Parkroyal again even with its eccentricities.

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Itty-bitty bathroom at HGI Serangoon

Wow, this HGI room is soooo small. The bathroom alone in the Parkroyal wasn’t much smaller than this entire space. Bathroom here is like one on a train.

The aging Parkroyal had electric receptacles that took either Asian or US plugs, but the HGI, despite being so new, requires adapters. I brought one or two, of course.

The  room is very attractive and bright, however. And then I did find two receptacles by the desk for laptops and phone chargers that take US and other plugs. Odd, though, that they are the only receptacles in the room that do.

If I was tall, I could almost reach the four walls standing in the center, but most American business travelers always go with the consistency that they feel is certain with a chain hotel like Hilton. Most U.S. businessmen would choose this hotel over the Parkroyal simply because Hilton is in the name.

The room is actually replete with receptacles: two by the desk, two on a small stand, one on each side of the bed, plus the usual ones in the throne room. I think the ones on the stand are meant for the coffee maker so didn’t think a guest would use them for charging. If so, then why did they install two there?

My room (505) is in the so-called (by the front desk staff) “tower” across the narrow street from the main hotel. “Tower” is an odd name for it since the main building stands far taller, at least 10-12 floors.

An overhead walkway connects the two buildings, but it’s on the 4th floor, so guests who are not in “tower” rooms on the 4th floor must take two elevators (one in each building) if they choose to use the connecting walkway instead of simply crossing the narrow street. I am guessing they built the skyway to protect guests from rain during the monsoon. Or perhaps just to provide guests wary of mixing with the locals a way to stay safely insulated from their present reality (i.e., the scary thought of being in Singapore rather than Poughkeepsie; personally, I’ll take Singapore).

I wondered if the rooms in the main building were larger. I caught up with a hotel maintenance guy on my floor and asked him. His exact words were that the main building rooms “are little big” as he held up two fingers to indicate a small measure. I’ll take his word as an expert that the difference is negligible.

This hotel supplies hand towels whereas the Parkroyal, oddly, did not.

I tried out the bed in my room. It’s very comfortable, but while lying there typing on my phone, I soon discovered that the tiny room dimension contributes to a very annoying problem: The A/C blows directly down onto the bed because it has nowhere else to distribute air, resulting in an arctic blast on my face and body every time the thermostat is triggered.

I had to get under the covers to stay warm. Even then, my head and arms got so cold that I turned off the A/C entirely. Now it’s getting hot; the outside temp is 91°, but at least I am not shivering.

A great deal of corridor noise penetrates my room. Partly that, too, may be attributed to the small room size. Though the bathroom should act as a sound shield, it doesn’t thwart the noise. I think it is due to poor sound insulation in the walls.

I did hear a baby screaming in the hall last night about 10:00 PM at the Parkroyal, but it was quickly removed, and that’s the only time I heard anything there.

But here at the HGI I can distinctly hear every word said in the corridor outside my door every time somebody goes by. That would be a consideration for me should I return.

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Resturant and bar at HGI Serangoon is on the 8th floor

I checked out the HGI restaurant, which is also the bar and breakfast cafe. It’s on the 8th floor, along with the pool. The youthful staff seemed very friendly and genuinely welcoming in the restaurant. God bless the young for not being jaded.

Back in my room, I noticed there is no bathtub, just a shower, but that’s my preference anyway.

Joe Brancatelli wrote about that coming feature in so-called three point bathrooms. Here is Joe’s 2007 article on the movement of hotels away from tubs to showers, which, to my surprise, was already well underway 12 years ago.

The back wall in the HGI shower is translucent glass and forms the wall by the bed, so weak but noticeable sunlight pierces the glass and brightens the shower interior.

No door on HGI shower, so some water tends to splash out even with a slightly depressed floor.

Only way to avoid either scalding or freezing myself is to remove the telephone shower head and hold it facing away until the desired water temp is achieved.

Shower water temp fluctuates slightly hotter at irregular intervals. I assume that’s because a toilet has been flushed somewhere.

Heck, that’s not good. My dorm room shower at North Carolina State University almost 50 years ago had conquered that old plumbing problem. Surely a country that can build an entire subway of 124 miles with 119 stations from scratch (opened in 1987) can keep a shower from scalding me.

My obsession with perfecting hotel and airline services comes from having spent forty years flying across the globe, spending far more nights in hotel rooms every year during those decades than I did in my own bed at home (usually five nights a week on the road versus two at home).

Those years taught me to closely observe every detail of what services were provided and how well the hotel and airline companies performed in delivery of what they promised. I learned to see things that infrequent travelers may not think were important. The practice has stayed with me.

Looking back, I was comfortable and could embrace either hotel as a base when working in Singapore.  The Hilton Garden Inn is very modern, but I still prefer the larger rooms, the consistent room quiet, and the better plumbing at the Parkroyal. I also had a larger table area and more room to work on my laptop at the Parkroyal than at the HGI. The other differences between the full service property and the so-called “focus-service” HGI  are not as important to me.

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.

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.