THE NIGHT BEFORE YOUR CRUISE

•January 13, 2017 • Leave a Comment

A REVIEW OF MELIÁ GENOVA Hotel

A cruise is an event doesn’t matter if you are a first timer or a experienced cruiser and all the time the embarkation day can set the mood for the days to come.

In my experience, not all the time the departure date match the best option in travel: price of the tickets, time of arrival in the port or time frame arrival-embarkation-departure. Therefore, couple of times I choose to arrive one day earlier than the embarkation and spend the night in the first port of the cruise. I know that some try to save on spending for a hotel room by flying in the morning of their cruise’s departure, but is it worth the stress of facing a delay should one occur? Padding your cruise with a day or two spent in port not only adds to the overall cruise experience with a land portion, but it takes the painstaking race against time — and potentially missing the ship — out of the vacation equation

That was my situation in January this year when I was sailing on MSC Splendida, from Genova, around Mediterranean Sea. I decided to spend 2 nights in the hub of MSC, the Liguria capital, Genoa. After searching different websites and reading the reviews I decided for Melia Genova, a 5-star hotel, part of the well-known MELIÁ HOTELS INTERNATIONAL.

The chain has a strong reputation, with some “ups and downs” but I can’t recommend the one in Genova highly enough.

MELIA GENOA has a central location ideal for both business and leisure, on Via Corsica, a quiet tree-lined road with magnificent architectural surroundings. Is very near the Palazzo Ducale, Carlo Felice theatre, San Lorenzo Cathedral, and Aquarium. If you take a taxi from the airport the fare will not be more than 35 Euros and to walk in to town will takes no more than 20 minutes. Actually, the location gives you the possibility to discover the charm of old city if you walk from the hotel to the Aquarium for example (leisurely walk approx. 30 minutes)

I decided for my booking a Junior suite on the 6th floor. Sure, it’s not cheap but has the wow factor. My suite at the Meliá Genoa was spacious, around 32 metres squared, providing a relaxing lounge area, comfortable furniture and pleasant lighting from its three windows with panoramic view. It is, with no doubts, the perfect choice for guests seeking greater space for greater comfort and charm. Decorated with a combination of the best of classic and contemporary styles with luxurious details to ensure a wonderful stay, some bits still need some polish (chipped furniture well hidden, Nespresso coffee machine didn’t work, lamps on the terrace didn’t work in the first night). But once again Melia Genoa was an excellent choice.

The terrace was impressive with excellent views of the town, very quiet and HUGE. Perfect place to watch the New Year fireworks over the sea and city.

The bathroom, with separate shower, bathtub and toilet has an interesting and spacious layout. I was very excited to find a TV screen in the bathroom mirror. And to not forget: i was very impressed with the bathroom amenities which are Loewe – a Spanish luxury fashion brand founded in 1846. That is what I call “a little touch of luxury”

The public areas are warm and welcoming due to a very inspired mixture of modern and traditional deco elements. The historical building was designed by Giuseppe Crosa di Vergagni in 1929, a Genoese architect of noble birth who also designed the fountain in the Piazza de Ferrari and other historical palaces in Genoa. It is a beautiful designer hotel, with a fascinating yet warm atmosphere that makes guests feel entirely at home.

The breakfast is served every morning in MAREA RESTAURANT, a cosy place matching the modern line of the rest of the hotel. Breakfast buffet was very good with lots of choices and healthy options but I have to say the service a bit slow and hectic, with the staff coping very well with a high number of guests arriving at the same time.

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BLUE LOUNGE BAR, decorated in silver, platinum and titanium tones with an elegant yet informal setting is pleasant at any hour of the day. The lounge has an a la carte menu including innovative and genuine regional and Mediterranean cuisine and a wide selection of Italian wines from the best bodegas. Don’t miss the excellent Mojito and Cosmopolitan and the scrumptious “Tiramisu Meliá”

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In the basement, the hotel has a cosy gym and a charming pool. I didn’t mind the size of both and I found a good idea to keep the facilities only for the guests: no risk to share the space with locals doing their training for the next Olympics like in other chain hotels. Perfect place to relax!

On top of the incredible attention to details and the real feel of comfort and luxury, what really made my experience unique, especially for a chain hotel, was Melia Genova staff. Everything became obsolete in front of this incredible totally professional and extremely friendly staff. Beginning from the Bellboy and room stewardess and ending with Reception and Concierge were all very correct, polite, quick to respond to any request and with a permanent genuine smile. And it’s not that there are no criticism points, but they became insignificant compared to the perfect job the that staff has do or has done. Couple of malfunctions in the room were solved in a timely manner, when asked about museums and aquarium opening time we were offered to buy “skip the line” tickets and the restaurant recommendations from the reception were based on real experience and not prices or “copy paste” information. Absolutely incredible customer service!

Bottom line: Melia Genova (https://www.melia.com/en/hotels/italy/genoa/melia-genova/index.html)  is THE option if you decide to stay the night before your cruise in Genova. At the end of the day even a flight that arrives the morning of could put you in line behind others waiting at the cruise terminal to get on the ship. Arriving at the ship nice and early — harder to guarantee with a flight — can mean making the most of that very first day of your cruise. Take time to orientate yourself with the ship’s layout, drop your bags, start sunning by the pool, grab a bite to eat and take a deep breath as you settle into your holiday bliss. And Melia Genova offers you a perfect start of your cruise in a real charming cosy boutique hotel in the heart of Genoa.

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THE DEATH OF “THE WORLD’S FAVOURITE AIRLINE”

•January 11, 2017 • 15 Comments

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Today is the end of an era at BA, complimentary drinks and food are history now. As from this morning, if you’re flying BA, you’ll have to pay for drinks and food. Flag carrier ends its complementary food service on short haul routes and teams up with Marks & Spencer to sell ‘the best food in the sky’

And the media is full of details: “Final call for a free G&T: BA starts charging for food and drink in short-haul economy” (http://www.independent.co.uk/travel)

I love airline food. From the soggiest bacon sandwich on a EasyJet flight, to the grandest culinary fest (which is not really that grand anymore) when I flew business.

Since my first flight back in ’80s, I find it all thrilling and delicious, an important part of the flying experience. When I’m at home I am more a gourmand than a gourmet, but at 10,000 feet, I genuinely enjoy and analyse all flavours even hot, salty and brownish-yellow. When you’re flying, the food is an event, and the ritual of unwrapping and discovering what’s for dinner is one of the highlights of my every flights

The slogan “The World’s Favourite Airline” was introduced in 1989 with the launch of the iconic “Face” advertisement. Today the “Face” can be replace with the image of a cold sandwich.

The airline has signed a deal with M&S that will see it replace free meals on flights of less than five hours and join no-frills rivals such as Ryanair and EasyJet in charging for sandwiches, crisps and drinks. Previously, economy class passengers could expect a small snack, such as a bacon sandwich, and a complimentary drink. Was not a lot but still gave BA the chance to make a difference on the UK market. I still remember the banners in Gatwick airport when BA started to give space to EasyJet and Norwegian: “Have a drink is on us!”, “Have a snack is on us!” or the proud announcement of the stewardess: “Shortly we will start the on-board service offering complimentary drinks and food to all our passengers!” Not anymore!

The first blow to British Airways standards was in 2005 when Willie Walsh, managing director of Aer Lingus and a former pilot, became the chief executive officer of British Airways. That was the starting point of major changes which affected the quality of on-board and on the ground services. BA started to lose the love of the nation but still was flying the flag successfully. Even under Walsh management BA carry on to distinguished itself from its budget rivals by including meals in ticket prices. But was just the quiet before the storm. The nail in the coffin was the appointment of Alex Cruz as British Airways chief executive, having previously run its low-cost Spanish sister airline Vueling. Is the moment when British Airways passed the PNR (the point of no return).

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Willie Walsh

In 2016 I was flying British Airways at least 20 times, both long and short haul, mostly in Club Europe (Business) and couple of times in Euro Traveller (Economy). Was easy to see, from a flight to another, how the “low-cost style” changes were replacing the old BA experience: mediocre quality of food, deteriorated enthusiasm of the crew, hectic “train station waiting room” atmosphere in the lounges and poor service on the ground.

Cruz’s boss, Willie Walsh, the chief executive of IAG, recently told media that he was an admirer of low-cost, long-haul operator Norwegian, which charges transatlantic passengers £28 for a pre-ordered meal service or £10-11 for fresh food from the trolley. “There appears to be consumer acceptance of that … that if you want a meal on a long-haul flight, you’re going to have to pay for it. We’ll see what happens.”

So, no surprises about the new hit in BA’s image and popularity! Charging for meals would remove one of the last on-board differences between BA and its budget rivals, as has already added charges for checking in bags, brought in under the guise of discounts for hand-luggage-only fares. How low BA can go? Don’t relax too much if you have plans to fly long-haul with BA in the future. You may not be immune to the developments. A new “enhanced meal” option on long-haul flights has recently been introduced by BA, where passengers pre-pay for a menu of their choice.

Recently a BA spokesman said: “We are constantly reviewing every element of the experience our customers receive, including the in-flight catering, to ensure we’re delivering what they want. Everything we do is with our customers in mind and we will make changes that reflect their feedback.” Even Mr. Cruz declared that “We know our customers expect a great experience with British Airways”. To be honest I think in my 20+ flights last year I missed Mr Cruz’s survey or I misplace the email sent with the other 1001 electronic information by BA in my Silver Member account.  Come on guys, grow up: they don’t care about the paying passengers and their needs. With their background they just make BA an air carrier from A to B, profitable for the big guys and where “customer experience” doesn’t fit. And doesn’t matter either. My recent feedback about a Club Europe flight to Genoa was “low cost” ignored. “To Fly, To Ignore” is the new motto, or maybe “To Fly, to Sell”?

Speaking to media when he launched the “buy on board” range, Mr Cruz rejected the suggestion that BA was turning into EasyJet. “Absolutely we’re not,” Cruz said. “There are millions of other things that BA has to offer that EasyJet will never be able to offer. Things related to loyalty and the service we provide, the lounges, the generous hand-baggage allowances we have, etc.” A spokesperson for Ryanair said: “Given you can fly from London Stansted to Bucharest for the same price as a posh BA sarnie, this is just another good reason to fly Ryanair.” And this is just the beginning.

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Alex Cruz

Experts predicted last night that the move by the UK’s biggest airline would anger loyal customers who are used to complimentary food and drink on all its flights. And if you need some fun tonight just read the comments on social media.

Mr Cruz added in his statement that while cost was a factor, choice and quality was the main reason – and also reducing the amount of food thrown away (or given away if non-perishable) at the end of flights as the new mode allows BA to match supply to demand. When asked if the move would lead to lower air fares, he replied that the airline was already offering ”very cheap” tickets in short haul services. Really?????

I just check now ( 13.1.2017, 09.05) some prices (www.skyscanner.com)

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London – Madrid / 1.02 – 8.02 / Economy Class / 1 passenger

Airline combinations £90

Norwegian £99I

beria £132

Ryanair £134

British Airways £140

EasyJet £141

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Interesting result! No comments!

Here is what BA and M&S was offering to economy class flyers (www.ba.com)

Breakfast

Greek style natural yogurt with summer berry compote and granola (£1.95)

Classic fruit salad with pineapple, melon, mango, apple, kiwi and blueberries (£3.10)

Hot bacon roll with pork from British farmers (£4.75)

Hot tomato and mozzarella focaccia (£4.75).

Lunchtime and evening

Aberdeen Angus beef and red onion chutney bloomer (£4.75)

Classic cheese ploughman’s with nine-month aged farmhouse mature cheddar and vine ripened tomatoes, pickle and mixed salad (£3)

Spiced chicken with quinoa and rice salad (£4.95)

Snacks

Nut assortment of almonds, brazils, cashews and hazelnuts (£1.60)

Wasabi peas (£1.60)

Salted cashews (£1.60)

Oriental snack mix (£2)

Super fruit, nut and seed flapjacks (£1.45)

Salt & vinegar and lightly salted hand-cut crisps (both £1)

Confectionery

Salted caramel hazelnut millionaire bar (£1.45)

Grab-bag sized milk chocolate covered popping popcorn and pretzels (£2.45)

Mini oat biscuits (£1.10)

Swiss milk chocolate mountain bar (£1.70)

Percy Pigs (£1.80)

The Whippy One (£1)

If you check the prices in stores you will realise that will be a ”small premium” to cover the cost of security and getting the food to the aircraft: for example, the £3 cheese ploughman’s typically retails at £2.60 in M&S stores, Percy Pigs are £1.60, though the beef bloomer is the same price. So, as a suggestion, stop and by before fly!

Passengers will also have to pay for beverages such as alcohol, tea, coffee and soft drinks, though these will not be supplied by M&S. Alcoholic drinks will cost from £4 and soft drinks from £1.50. Menu choices – which will be refreshed every three months and include seasonal changes – will also feature vegetarian, gluten-free and healthy options, with food aimed at children in the pipeline.

Cash will not be accepted on board, however, with payment by debit or credit card, contactless or chip and pin. So, if you have only cash, again, as a suggestion, stop and by before fly!

And finally, while the competitors offer duty free and flights, in an aviation industry first, passengers will be able to pay with their BA Avios frequent flier points via their smartphones. A passenger on an off-peak, short-haul flight with a “fare” of 4,000 Avios will spend more than half as many points again by buying a sandwich, a fruit salad with yoghurt and a G&T on board. I am more relaxed now…. for my future Avios… if I will get any.

However, you still have a chance to enjoy the old BA: the new menu started today for passengers flying from Heathrow and Gatwick, while anyone departing from Stansted or London City will still get a snack free of charge until summer 2017.

If you thought you knew the world’s favourite airline, think again. AirHelp (www.airhelp.com) have revealed at the end of last year, their best and worst performers in the sky. The quality and service scores come from Skytrax (www.skytrax.com) , which is a robust auditor, so those scores hold up well. And surprise, surprise: Virgin Atlantic is the only British carrier to win a top 10 placing – they’re at number six between KLM and Air Baltic why British Airways got only a number 14 behind Finnair and Air France.

After reading the online reviews I started to think very serious about my travelling plans for 2017. I already booked 3 tickets in Club Europe with BA: Naples, Dubai and Bucharest I can’t wait to see the “improvements” promised by British Airways. But for the rest of the year…

Food on a flight is a kind of punctuation. It’s like a cocktail hour, petits fours after pudding, or a old cognac after dinner. It’s a ritual that helps me to fantasise that I’m somehow still connected to the golden age of aviation with big trolleys and carving the meat at your seat. In-flight dinners allow me to maintain the idea that there’s still something glamorous about being on a plane.

I’m sure that cutting meals will save money, but for passengers it will make journeys slightly less exciting than getting Eurostar, a ferry or a coach. At least on the bus you get extra legroom, no grumpy stewardesses thinking at how much their job chanced and a more interesting view.

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A NAUTICAL “BIG BROTHER”

•January 9, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Recently P&O Cruises twitted something odd: “We love #HolidayFirsts so this week we’re sending a couple on their first ever cruise on #Britannia, join us as we follow their journey.  Later, one of my friends, David Monk (shipmonk.co.uk) wrote about this experiment.

Of course, I was anxious to find more… And what I found is quite creepy and ridiculous at the same time.

P&O have decided to create a “nautical Big Brother”:  chosen by a panel of judges, a couple will cruise with P&O and everything they do on board and on shore will be chosen for them by social media users. Whether it is visiting the ship’s 13 bars, attending a show, going to a restaurant or in a shore excursion – every public activity they do will be shown live on P&O Cruises’ social media channels.

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Freddy Berry, 57, and 52-year-old Karen Pacaud, from York, were the chosen human guinea pigs to enjoy a two-week Caribbean voyage on P&O Cruises flagship Britannia. They fly out soon to join the ship in Barbados. But, as I mentioned, the couple, who have never cruised before, will be told what to do and where to go by thousands of the cruise line’s followers on Facebook and Twitter.

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Freddy Berry and Karen Pacaud

Remembering the last year experience on P&O VENTURA (https://leonardmiron.com/2016/01/11/new-year-on-a-feryy-with-a-hint-of-floating-benidorm/ ) and beyond the marketing and PR clouds three questions agitated my afternoon sleep:

  • Which cruise market P&O is targeting now? “Big Brother” moved quick from big players to “second hand” TV channels and the rating was following the trend, so …
  • How accurate the market research reports which generated this “brilliant” idea are? P&O describe Britannia as “…Designed for the modern British holidaymaker, combining the excitement of cruising with the sophistication of a five-star hotel…” No way that the widely criticised “Big Brother” model can be compared to modern British holidaymakers or a five-star hotel.
  • How desperate or innocent you must be to say YES? Apart from second hand stars in need of free publicity, nobody accepts nowadays this kind of public exposure. The only reality-ish TV show still with standards and celebrities is “Strictly…” but even the BBC struggles sometimes to find real celebrities. Why a normal decent British couple will accept this public exposure is hard for me to understand; even the price of a free cruise is too high for this experiment.

But, at the end of the day, P&O has designed for sure its own medium and long term strategies. When Cunard brings symphonic orchestra themed cruises, Silversea catches big stage names and Regent associate themselves with Smithsonian, P&O goes with “Big Brother”, “Ant and Dec” and “the enomatic wine system” (i.e. wine dispensed on tap).

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The enomatic wine system

The cruise market is huge, with space for all tastes and interests, including it seems reality TV show lovers.  How this relates to sophisticated five-star floating hotels is however debatable.

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ABOVE THE CLOUDS AND EXPECTATIONS

•December 20, 2016 • Leave a Comment

A review of a flight London Heathrow – Dubai vía Bahrain on Gulf Air- Gold Falcon Class

Flying to London from Dubai with a stopover in Bahrain is not a journey a holiday traveller is likely to make in place of a direct flight.

But Gulf Air provided two solid reasons to fly via Bahrain: a highly competitive business class fare, less than half the price of its main rivals; and personal service on smaller planes that harks back to the carrier’s golden age in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Of course, the direct flight alternatives are Emirates and BA; the UAE carrier, despite of being tempting with its A380 had quite a high price for the dates and times convenient for me, and British Airways surprised me recently with major disappointments, both on short and long haul service. Therefore the choice this time was Gulf Air without having too many expectations apart of a decent and good value for money business class trip.

I was pleasantly surprised by Gulf Air. I had low expectations going in, just looking at Gulf Air’s trajectory. Back in the day they were a leader in the Middle East, though over the years their financial situations and route network seems to have gotten progressively worse. Gulf Air was the main regional carrier in the 1970s and ‘80s with Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Oman as equal shareholders. Qatar was the first to leave in 2002 to concentrate on Qatar Airways, followed by Abu Dhabi to launch Etihad in 2003 and Oman in 2007

Ticket reservation and pre-flight support

I booked the tickets via www.skyscanner.com and the travel agent sent me quite quick the reservation number so i could access the Gulf Air website (www.gulfair.com). Not a very sophisticated website like the competition, with a basic design but, at least with an easy access and all information needed. Because my reservation was from an external website I couldn’t choose the seats for my flights. Therefore, I manage to contact via social media the Gulf Air and SURPRISE: they replied immediately (British Airways needed 1 week and EasyJet 1 week). I was contacted by phone by an agent and booked the seats immediately. Great job. Later, when I check the aircraft configuration on www.seatguru.com I realised that my allocated seats were close to the toilets. I sent an email to Gulf Air, with no expectation of a solution, requesting a change in seating. The second BIG surprise: got a replay in less than 24 hours with the new seats and the agent told me that he “took the liberty” to give me the best seats in the house. WOW!

Check-in

In Heathrow T4 check-in was always quicker than in T5. And Gulf Air, even if doesn’t’ have 3 hostesses running around with no purpose or a red carpet, was very efficient, the check-in was quick and without too much fuss. After that, using the Fast Track,  the security check was quite fast and efficient and I had enough time to enjoy Christmas in T4 3 weeks earlier…but that’s Heathrow.

 

Gold Falcon Lounge – LHR T4

The Gold Falcon Lounge in T4 was a very pleasant surprise, being one of the best that I’ve visited in a while. And I am sure that you remember my posts about British Airways Lounge in T5 and the feeling of being lost in the train station during rush hours.

The lounge is located next to gate 7 (opposite the WHSmith and World Duty Free stores), from where the majority of Gulf Air’s twice-daily flights depart. There is a large Gulf Air sign on the wall, along with one for Malaysia Airlines, which suggests that the two carriers are sharing the same lounge, when in fact MAS has its own lounge located above Gulf Air. I was keen to see what the Gulf Air lounge would be like. Gulf Air isn’t in a very good financial situation so I was kind of surprised they had a lounge in London, and given that they did, I had fairly low expectations. Once again, I was very pleasantly surprised.

The lounge was indeed gorgeous. First impressions are of a light, airy lounge, both in terms of the light, and the décor which mixes cream and sandy colours with the blue from the carrier’s livery. One feature for me that’s important in an airport lounge is the seating area. The dining area has comfy chairs with tables and a power point at each one which is built in to the coat stand. In addition to that there are some good views straight onto the tarmac. If you want a little more privacy or are travelling as a family, then you might want to go into one of the small rooms that are there with a TV and sofa.  They are just to one side of the lounge next to the dining area.

 

There are also several “Dilmun seals” adorning the lounge walls, a nod to the ancient civilization of which the Fort of Bahrain Fort (or Qal`at al-Bahrain) is considered by UNESCO to have been the capital.

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Walking in to the lounge there is a reception desk to the left with departure boards, and a locker room to the right for storing luggage. Past reception and off to the left are the toilet facilities, with stylish curved basins and mosaic tiling. There was a small but functional office area with a few Macs if you need to do any work or just get onto the internet.  This area was screened off from the rest of the lounge.

Past the business centre there is an island bar with stool seating, serving soft and alcoholic drinks, including a signature Falcon Spirit cocktail which comes in both alcoholic and nonalcoholic versions. There is no self-service but the bartender was friendly, knowledgeable and could actually make a wide variety of drinks. The staff in the lounge were also happy to chat and they would also take order when you were sat down in one of the comfy lounge areas.

The dining area is one of the areas that the lounge excels in. The dinner menu consists of hot and cold snacks and mezze, salads, sandwiches and wraps, soups, “hot main dishes”, a selection of desserts, fruit salad and fresh fruits. Is a perfect option if you want to have a quiet flight skip the in-flight dinner and sleep all the way to Bahrain.

Gulf Air Lounge London Heathrow bottom line: I was very pleasantly surprised by the Gulf Air ground experience in London. Their lounge is gorgeous, given that they only have two flights a day with a total of 72 premium seats (and based on what I’ve seen, their flights almost never seem to be full). Not only was it nicely decorated, but the food spread was good and the service was attentive. At this point I was hoping the on-board experience would match the ground experience

 

In-flight

I don’t think I’ve ever boarded a plane as “blind” as when I got on this Gulf Air flight. SeatGuru shows three configurations for Gulf Air’s A330s, none of which matched the seatmap for my flight. Gulf Air’s website barely even refers to their new business class product, which I assumed my flight would have.

The first impression is great. I boarded through door 2L where a  hostess welcomed me on board while another one escorted me to my seat. Gulf Air’s business class cabin consists of a total of 36 seats, spread across two identical cabins. Each cabin features a total of three rows in a 2-2-2 configuration — one is before the main entry door, and one is behind the main entry door, and they’re separated by the galley and lavatories. The business class product was nice — this wasn’t a state of the art business class product or anything, but instead they were standard forward facing fully flat seats. They’re quite nice, especially if you’re traveling with someone.

Even before take-off, we were offered a refreshing towel, choosing between a cold or hot one. That was a premiere for me. Arabic coffee followed, then local dates presented in a basket. All of that and we were still on ground! It seems like a unique experience!

I took the opportunity to look at the amenity kit, which was quite nice for a short flight, and contained Chopard branded toiletries.

After I had a few minutes to settle in, the Scottish onboard chef, Derek, came by to introduce himself. He was charming and very friendly — perhaps even a bit too enthusiastic, if there is such a thing — and clearly loved his job. He handed me the menu and went over the dining “concept” for the flight. He explained there would be dinner after take-off, then continental breakfast before landing, and that I should let him know if I needed anything. While still at the gate with the door closed, Derek came around the cabin to take meal orders. There were printed menus, but despite that you couldn’t get a word in without Derek basically listing everything on the menu. Which I sort of found cute, because he clearly loved his job. “Have you decided what you would like as your starter? Maybe an Arabic mezze? Or maybe I can tempt you with a fresh garden salad? “…“And for your main course, have you decided? I have a lovely lamb shank. Or would you prefer a sea bass fillet?”

On the climb out I decided to browse the entertainment selection. The selection wasn’t amazing, in that there wasn’t much variety, some old movies, a small collection of music and some not very well rated new releases. But at the end of the day it was a short night flight and hoping that I will get some sleep before landing ion Manama I was happy seeing AGAIN “Devil wears Prada” and listen to some ABBA songs.

It was about 20 minutes after take-off before drinks were served. Gulf Air isn’t a dry airline on long-haul flights — they do have alcohol and a quite interesting wine list. I ordered a glass of champagne to start, which was served with some mixed nuts and a nice Chablis for my dinner

The dinner service was slow to start. That was quite weird for a night flight because it was about 60 minutes into the flight before service started. For the starter, I had the Arabic mezze and some Arabic pita to accompany it. It was nice, tasty and the presentation, quality, and quantity was above what BA will serve you on a long-haul flight to Middle East. For the main course, I had the slow cooked lamb shank, which was very tasty and nice presented. Dessert was served off a trolley, and looked divine. I managed to restrain myself and only have an opera cake, which was really good. Next a fruit and cheese cart was rolled around, which was very tempting.

The service throughout the meal was attentive enough. Derek clearly loved his job, though the rest of the crew was a little bit less enthusiastic. I guess I kind of perceived the crew’s mentality as being “well, we wanted to work at Emirates or Etihad and didn’t get the job, so I guess this is better than British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.” At least that’s how it felt. By the time the meal service was done we were only about three hours outside of Bahrain. I decided to nap for a bit, which was quite a big mistake as I woke up more tired that I was before. 90 minutes before landing a continental breakfast was served with orange juice coffee and fresh fruits platter.

Shortly thereafter we began our descent, and I stowed all my belongings. We had a smooth touchdown in Bahrain, and after a five minute taxi made it to the gate right on schedule.

Gold Falcon Lounge – Manama Airport

The lounge in Bahrain airport, the hub of Gulf Air was a little disappointment. Of course, after the experience in Heathrow, the lounge in Manama airport had big shoes to fill. I like the layout of this Gulf Air lounge with different areas for kids, business and some big couches to lie down on (though there are only a few of these). The food selection was ok but a little limited, however the beverage selection was excellent. A panoramic view of aircraft taking off and landing provides a diverting backdrop to the sleek minimalist Arabian style incorporated throughout the lounge. Elevated seating areas offer comfort and privacy to guests, while plasma screens hanging from the ceiling provide news and entertainment. While you will be told at check in that flights are not called the reverse is true – some flights are called (very disturbing to sleep when there are no earplugs available!) on a very odd seemingly random basis. The desk staff is quite polite while service staff in the lounge tries to be unobtrusive but fails miserably clattering dishes and glassware making a lot of noise when replenishing food and drink. Once again the memories of British Airways lounge in T5 made me think that in Manama the lounge was much better.

Flight Bahrain – Dubai

The aircraft was definitely not new but was clean and not very busy in Business Class. The seats were large and very comfortable not like the ones used in Europe for short haul flights. We were offered pre-departure drinks, mint juice, water and orange juice. After departure they offered us Arabic coffee and dates plus a cooked breakfast. Was a very short flight and I managed to catch some sleep… not too much as the number of the announcements was a little bit too much for a 55 minutes trip.

Gulf Air Business Class bottom line

I was pleasantly surprised by Gulf Air. I had low expectations going in, just looking at Gulf Air’s trajectory. Back in the day they were a leader in the Middle East, though over the years their financial situations and route network seems to have gotten progressively worse.

Are they Emirates or Etihad? Nope. But in the grand scheme of things they offered a competitive product. They had a nice hard product, on board chef, and perfectly edible food. I wouldn’t hesitate to fly them again.

 

Thank you very much Gulf Air for an excellent experience and look forward to fly with you again…actually already booked the next trip with Gulf Air!

POSTCARDS FROM EASTERN EUROPE

•November 27, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Best kept secrets from a Lower Danube Cruise

Travelling from Bucharest, Romania to Budapest, Hungary is not a simple cruise, a touristic product created for everybody, is a jump in time and space in a world hidden for so many years behind the Iron Curtain. Is an amazing journey in a land were “normal” for western travellers tend to be “exceptional” for locals and “local daily life” is an “experience” for most of us. Everything in a space where the peace and calm of the landscape hide centuries of agitated history.

If, you, traveller, decide to discover the beauty, the history and the culture of this part of Europe during your Lower Danube cruise, some tips can reveal hidden gems of the itinerary and create memories for a lifetime

BUCHAREST

If you start your journey with some free time in Bucharest don’t hesitate to jump in a taxi and after a 20 minutes ride discover in the outskirts of Romanian capital the quintessence of the Romanian Renaissance style or Brâncovenesc style. The architectural gem was built between 1698-1702 by Constantin Brâncoveanu just before the Romanian ruler was executed with his entire family in Constantinople by the Ottomans. Spending couple of hours in the palace and in the beautiful gardens will give anyone the chance to discover the bitterness of medieval, modern and contemporary Romanian history.

One evening is a good idea to discover in the heart of Bucharest a traditional Romanian restaurant (my favourite is VATRA, located minutes away from the old city, on Brezoianu street) and indulge yourself in a typical Romanian feast. A “must have” are sarmale . There is no Romanian traditional meal without Sarmale. Usually prepared during winter time and Christmas holidays, Sarmale is a dish made of rolled minced meat (pork usually) mixed with rice and herbs and covered in cabbage leaves. It is usually accompanied by Mamaliga (or Mamaliguta) – polenta made of boiled corn flour, as well as by hot peppers and sour cream. The cabbage used is in fact sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), which gives a particular taste to the dish.  The meat must be quite fatty; sometimes pork greaves are added to increase the taste.

If you decided to try a full day trip to the Black Sea and you will visit the city of Constanta take some time and admire the beautiful Art Nouveau Casino. Once considered to be the country’s very own Monte Carlo, abandoned remains are now all that’s left of Romania’s majestic Casino Constanta. Perched on a cliffside overlooking the Black Sea, the impressive structure’s art deco shapes and details are still intact despite having shuttered decades ago. The Casino is challenging your imagination step by step, with every ornament, every broken mirror, and every crack in the wall producing an emotional roller coaster outlined by the magnificent view of the sea. What used to be the main social and cultural attraction of the city in the past today is lying in despair, completely neglected like a true old man celebrating alone his 100th anniversary. There is a legend saying that Constanta Casino was built by a navigator who had a girl. She died young at 17 years old. Then, her father decided to built the Casino for young people to share moments that his daughter couldn’t. If you look from the top, the casino supposed to look like a hearse and the windows like graves. Legend says that during the summer, those who lost gambling were jumping in the waves of the Black Sea. This explains the autumn and winter storms started in the seafront.

ROUSSE

Your day in the Bulgarian city of Rousse will take you for sure to Veliko Tarnovo. During the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, from the year 1185 to 1395, Bulgaria was the largest and the most powerful state in Southeastern Europe, and Tsarevets Hill was the main fortress of the medieval capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Gossip had it that a secret tunnel underneath the palace kept seven stone tubs full of gold, precious stones and jewelry. Three crowns and a scepter, symbols of statehood, as well as a Christian cross, were laid on a marble table in the crypt. This legend speaks of the relentless popular faith that the Bulgarian Christian state would resurrect after the Ottoman conquest.

A short ride from the city will take you to the village of Arbanasi with breathtaking views towards Veliko Tarnovo and Aegean air which, according to a local urban legend, arrives here after crossing thousands of kilometres and two mountain ranges. Built in the time of greatest prosperity, in the 16-18th centuries, Arbanasi was home to 1,000 households and 11 priests. Take some time to discover incredible churches heavily painted, tiny, dark, squat spaces, whose walls are covered with naive frescoes of strangely charming religious scenes and portraits of benefactors. The detailing and the state of preservation are astonishing, and you can gaze at these centuries-old faces for hours, until you feel light-headed. The most spectacular of the six Arbanasi churches is the Rozhdestvo Hristovo, or Nativity church. From the outside, the 17-18th Century bare stone walls of the church do not reveal anything of the splendid colours, figures and religious drama that await you inside. Separated into several sections, including one for women, the church is a claustrophobic maze of low ceilings and thick walls. Each room of the interior is covered with scenes from the Old Testament mingled with solemn saints and poignant episodes from the Gospels, with a particularly descriptive mural of the Last Judgement.

And for lunch try my favourite spot – Restaurant Isvora – The Spring (Opalchenska street) where the Bulgarian hospitality is at its best and the famous Shopska salad (the traditional cold salad made from tomatoes, cucumbers, onion/scallions, raw or roasted peppers, white brine cheese and parsley) is huge.

VIDIN

A stop in Vidin will take you to Belogradchik  Rocks and Fortress – a group of strange shaped sandstone and conglomerate rock formations located on the western slopes of the Balkan Mountains. The fortress’s walls are over 2 metres (6.6 ft) thick in the foundation and reaching up to 12 m (39 ft) in height. Three separate fortified yards exist that are connected with each other through gates on a total area of 10,210 square metres (109,900 sq ft).

 

If you go close to the rocks at twilight and just listen for a while, you will hear the cry of a cuckoo. It is the Cuckoo rock calling. The rock truly produces the same sound as the bird and for this reason people gave its name. Is this only a play of the wind or the Cuckoo rock tells the story of the nearby Horseman, Madonna and Nunnery rocks, no one can tell for sure. The legend tells that the rocks are connected. The Horseman’s name was Anton (Anthony). He was a poor shepherd. The Madonna (the lady with child in hands) bore the name of Vitinya. She was very beautiful and belonged to a rich family. The two of them fell in love, but Vitinya’s father didn’t allow them to marry and sent his daughter into the Nunnery on the mountain’s slope. Nevertheless, the two beloved continued to meet in secret and soon conceived a child. The nuns ousted Vitinya with her child and Anton came, riding a horse, and rescued them. In this moment a storm arose, one thunder stroke, the earth shook and everything around turned into stone! Only a cuckoo survived and flew out of the woods…

IRON GATES

The Iron Gates is a piece of a paradise between the Balkans and the European Union, in which is combined superior beauty of nature and traces of history that testify to its importance. The highest gorge in Europe shows the most beautiful face of the Danube River surrounded by mountains with Serbian and Romanian side of the border. There are no words enough to describe the beauty and the strength of this gorge: Iron Gates links four valleys and four gorges through which the Danube shows its changeable nature. Golubac gorge, Gospodjin Vir, Mali and Veliki Kazan are the gorges that are unified into one – the Iron Gate. Kazan is a place in the Djerdap Gorge in which the river seems to boil (as in boiling cauldron) because of the many vortices located in there. The deepest part of the Danube through the gorge is about 90 meters and it is the maximum recorded depth of a river in the world.

The gorges made transportation treacherous on this part of the Danube, so the Iron Gate Dam was constructed, starting in 1964 and ending in 1984. The water level is now 130 feet higher than before the dam was built. At least 7 towns were covered, the Turkish fortress island of Ada Kaleh was destroyed, and 23,000 people were relocated.Close to the Iron Gates Dam you have the unique chance to se the only place in the world where the flag of former Yugoslavia is still visible next to TITO’s name

The Europe’s largest monument in the wall is located in Djerdap Gorge. The monument is 40 meters high and it was built by powerful Romanian businessman Constantin Dragan who invested a fortune in the chiseling Decibel statue on the Romanian side of Djerdap gorge. It is said that he invested nearly two million dollars to the monument in which creation participated 12 carvers and several dozen of climbers. Its building lasted ten years, it was interrupted several times and it is very controversial. The most intrigued is the inscription on the monument: “Decebalus Rex Dragan Fecit” literally translated as Decibel ruled / or won but Dragan built. If you pay attention on the top of the statue you can see the cross – the legend says that a young couple jumped from the top of the monument because of their tragic love.

With a little bit of luck and good weather you will have the chance to see couple of caves on the Romanian side, each with interesting legends. One is Veteran’s Cave, from which Austrian soldiers once harassed Turkish shipping on the river. Another is Ponicova Cave. Romanians used it to attempt escapes from their communist rulers. A few succeeded to swim to Yugoslavia. Others were shot as they swam, and some made it across but were returned by the Yugoslav guards.

BELGRADE

Outspoken, adventurous, proud and audacious: Belgrade is by no means a ‘pretty’ capital, but its gritty exuberance makes it one of the most happening cities in Europe. While it hurtles towards a brighter future, its chaotic past unfolds before your eyes: socialist blocks are squeezed between art nouveau masterpieces, and remnants of the Habsburg legacy contrast with Ottoman relics. So many things to do, so many things to see.

Stop for a while and visit the charming Ružica Church and St. Petka Chapel. There have been several legends passed on as to the first Ružica Church, erected here during the rule of Serbian king Stefan Lazarević and destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1521.  One legend says that a knight, while tending to an injured maiden, found the water spring that still runs beneath the Saint Petka Chapel today. He used the healing water from the St. Petka Spring to nurse her back to health and she had a church built on the spot in gratitude. Another legend says that, around the same time, Serbian troops were surrounded and trapped in this spot without food or water. The miraculous spring appeared and enabled them to survive. Yet another legend says that three sisters, Ružica, Marica and Cveta, each erected a church here to show their devotion to Christ

Another stop, another exciting slice of Belgrade’s history: The Roman Well, located in the southwest part of the Upper Town within Kalemegdan fortress, though in truth the well really isn’t Roman, at all. More likely is that it was actually built in the 18th century by the Austrians and that the name could be connected to their ambition to be considered as the inheritors of the great Roman Empire, or as the holders of the title of the Holy Roman Emperor, a confusing title which came after the actual Roman empire and referred to the ruler of the Germanic lands. The notoriety of the ‘Roman Well’ comes from the many tales and legends of prisoners being thrown down the hole throughout the Belgrade history  and left to eat each other, rebels imprisoned by OZNA, Nazi treasure hunters whose bodies were never found, the communist secret service and a wife murdered by a jealous husband among many others. Alfred Hitchcock visited the well in 1964 and said that an environment like that is always a treat for him. The well is 51m deep (it’s bottom lies below the bottom of the nearby Sava river), with 3m in diameter and two spiral staircases that connect at the depth of about 35 meters forming a DNA-like shape. The water in the well is incredibly clean, and is home to an endemic species of tiny crab that lives only there.

If you really search for a thrilling experience a visit to the underground Belgrade is exactly what you need. Underground Belgrade has always attracted tremendous attention since it hides more than one hundred caves, canals, tunnels, passages and incredible stories. History of underground Belgrade is in connection to various empires and states that have ruled over ages in this area. Under Belgrade there are hundreds of cellars, caves, tunnels, bunkers and passageways, many of which have yet to be opened. Some archaeologists think that there are so many tunnels under Kalemegdan and Zemun that it would take decades to explore them all. The tour Underground Belgrade will take visitors to the Roman hall where lie foundation of the main gate of the Roman fortress and Roman aqueduct and they will hear stories about Tito’s (former president of Yugoslavia) political games and spy secrets from the time of Communist Information Bureau.

VUKOVAR

When you visit Vukovar today, it’s a challenge to visualise this town as it was before the war. A pretty place on the Danube, with roots stretching back to the 10th century and a series of elegant baroque mansions, it once bustled with art galleries and museums. All that changed with the siege of 1991, which destroyed its economy, culture, infrastructure, civic harmony and soul.

You can not miss Vukovar water tower – one of the most famous symbols of Vukovar and the suffering of both this heroic city and the country in the Battle of Vukovar and the Croatian War of Independence. The tower, just like the city itself, was largely destroyed by the Serbian forces was one of the most frequent targets of artillery hit more than 600 times during the siege

When you are in Vukovar you must find some time to visit the incredible Vukovar City Museum – Castle Eltz – founded in 1948 by a donation of Roman money, furniture, weapons, and paintings given to his city by Dr. Antun Bauer. The museum started in the Coach Post Building in the old baroque centre, but was moved to Castle Eltz in 1966. Up until 1991 the Museum had about 50 thousand exhibits in four separate divisions. To this day the collection has gathered over 1400 pieces of modern Croatian and European art. This collection represented the beginning of the cultural restoration of Vukovar and it is displayed at the restored Castle Eltz today, along with other museum collections which are part of the permanent collection of the Museum. Now that it is renovated, the Castle Eltz complex represents a unique museum and gallery, science, and multimedia centre, which preserves and presents cultural heritage as an element of national identity and the continuity of life in this area.

In 2013 the Vukovar City Museum won a prestigious Anton Štifanić Award for special contribution to the development of tourism in the Republic of Croatia and in 2014 won the Simply the Best award.

And if you are hungry try Burek – a family of baked filled pastries is made from layers of dough, alternating with layers of other fillings in a circular baking pan and then topped with a last layer of dough. Traditionally it may be baked with no filling (prazan), with stewed minced meat and onions, or with cheese. Modern bakeries offer cheese and spinach, apple, sour cherries, potato, mushroom and pizza-burek, as well.

KALOCSA

Kalocsa was founded as Esztergom in the 11C by Stephen I as a bishopric. Elevated to the status of an archbishopric, a cathedral was built here. Despite bouts of destruction and the town’s small size, its religious past justifies the presence of two important buildings in the centre: the Archbishop’s Palace and the Baroque cathedral. Beside the history and the famous chicos ( Hungarian horsemen) Kalocsa is the paradise of paprika.

Paprika is not simply a popular seasoning in Hungary, but it’s at the very core of Hungarian cuisine. It is used for its flavor and for its bright color in two varieties: édes or sweet and erős or hot/ spicy. Most households will have both for Hungarian dishes like goulash (gulyás, or gulyásleves: say goo-yaash), which is the flagship Hungarian dish (alas, slightly threatened by more modern and healthy cuisine trends). Growing paprika in the Kalocsa region (mid-southern part of Hungary) goes back to the 18th century, but industrial production only started in the 1920’s. Paprika became a popular part of cuisine in the 1780’s in Hungary. The technique of making sweet paprika was gradually developed in Hungary from the 1850’s by getting rid of the seeds and stems, only keeping the pods.

The Magyar horsemen were highly-skilled and greatly-feared in the 10th century when they raided deep into the heart of Europe.T he rapport and trust between horses and riders was obvious with the noble animals submitting to all manner of unhorsely  behaviour. The Magyar horse-riding circus celebrates the age-old art of animal husbandry endemic to these Eurasian steppes. Horses are trained to endure gunfire with loud ostor (whip) cracks and taught to lie prostrate in the fields of long wheat so their riders can lie in wait and spring an ambush, presumably against the regular Turkish invaders. Our heroic riders command eight horses, standing bareback on the last two, and hang on like speedway sidecar riders.

BUDAPEST

Straddling the Danube River, with the Buda Hills to the west and the Great Plain to the east, Budapest is a gem of a city. I love Budapest for all the right reasons – architecture (especially Art Nouveau), romance (particularly the views from the bridges) and sticky apricot jam – and some of the wrong ones, too (killer pálinka (fruit brandy), and being lazy in the Turkish baths). Budapest’s beauty is not all God given; humankind has played a role in shaping this pretty face too. Architecturally, the city is a treasure trove, with enough baroque, neoclassical, Eclectic and Art Nouveau (or Secessionist) buildings to satisfy everyone. Overall, though, Budapest has a fin-de-siècle feel to it, for it was then, during the capital’s ‘golden age’ in the late 19th century, that most of what you see today was built.

A unique experience is a drink in the always-popular Ruin Pubs remain the most unique part of Budapest’s entertainment scene. A must on every visitor’s to-do list, these pubs, located in formerly abandoned buildings, have a great atmosphere any time of the day. Ruin Pubs (‘rom kocsma’ in Hungarian, literally: pub in a ruin) are located in formerly abandoned buildings in the city and are very popular hot spots. Most are open year-round, some are temporary outdoor pubs, open from May to September and some are located in the cellars of old houses. Live music with the best Hungarian bands, charming retro décor, unique atmosphere and late opening hours make these places perfect for party. Ruin Pubs certainly represent a new wave of entertainment in Budapest. The trend started about 10 years ago and although some places come and go or change ownership; you will always find a Ruin Pub that’s popular

Home to some 40 statues, busts and plaques of Lenin, Marx, Béla Kun and others whose likenesses have ended up on trash heaps elsewhere in the former-socialist world, Memento Park, 10km southwest of the city centre, is a mind-blowing place to visit. Ogle the socialist realism and try to imagine that at least four of these relics were erected as recently as the late 1980s. Newer attractions are the replicated remains of Stalin’s boots – all that was left after a crowd pulled the enormous statue down from its plinth on XIV Dózsa György út during the 1956 Uprising – and an exhibition centre in an old barracks with displays about the events of 1956 and the changes since 1989, and a documentary film with rare footage showing secret agents collecting information on ‘subversives’.

Of course, there are so many things to discover, to see or the learn in a journey on Lower Danube! You can try it for yourself.

VIKING LIF operates in 2017 “Passage to Eastern Europe” – Sail to lands rich in traditions: see Bucharest’s 3,000-room Palace of Parliament. Make banitsa bread with a home cook in Vidin. Explore Belgrade’s Ottoman and European treasures, including 6th-century Kalemegdan Fortress. View the Danube’s towering Iron Gate. Visit a Croatian family’s Osijek home. Witness Hungary’s daredevil Puszta horsemen. Behold Budapest’s grandeur. Once hidden behind the Iron Curtain, the eastern Danube still has secrets to reveal on a 11-day cruisetour from Bucharest to Budapest/ Budapest to Bucharest

Visit http://www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk/ for more information and special deals.

 

BA – HOW LOW CAN THEY GO?

•November 26, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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Recently I was writing a review about the drop-in standards and quality on a Club Europe flight London – Bucharest. I didn’t respect any reaction from BA and indeed the airline managed my expectations and never got back to me, even with an acknowledge of my opinion.

Three weeks later I took a Club Europe Amsterdam to London Gatwick and the experience was the same. Even if the flight was shorter the in-flight experience made me to decide to remove BA from my first choices list when flying.

Despite the excellent service on the ground – maybe one of the most efficient, pleasant and smooth check-in ever – the nightmare started when I board the plane.  The “very British welcome” was offered by one of the flights attendants busy with his chewing gum and to cover with his back the “Cabin Service Manager” (great title) who was having his lunch annoyed by the arrival of passengers.

The “Cabin Service Manager” – was the perfect image for a BA who lowered the standards at a level where, if passenger will have one, a GPWS will start screaming “TERRAIN, TERRAIN PULL UP!” – scruffy, with no worries about uniform standards and appearance, with shoes like his enthusiasm during the flight kept at home in a box marked “Wear and Tear items”.

The afternoon tea – long time ago the pride of the Britishness of BA service is now a rushed “push the trolley” filled with “cut the corners” sandwiches, “sad and depressed” sandwiches and some rolled eyes when you ask for a Vodka Tonic, or “VT” as the Cabin Service Manager corrected me in a very “informal” conversation.

Funny was the fact that during this amazing “Afternoon tea service” no tea or coffee was offered and when one of the passenger ask the flight attendant a little bit later for some tea to wash down the dry scones the answer was: “It was on the trolley; you need to ask, is too short the flight and we don’t have time to offer”. Great and very customer service orientated answer!

Including the delay – for which one of the pilots apologised with an amazing sample of “wooden language” – the flight was a little bit longer than one hour so I was hoping to get some work done. But no chance. The destiny placed behind me, on row 3 (D and F) tow British Airways flight attendants, both using their travel concession. No, I didn’t check their tickets but I think the entire Club Europe cabin and ½ of Economy find that during their conversation. While the elderly lady was trying to talk about BA from the “old days” point of view, the young flight attendant gave me a very “exciting” analysis of the company from inside spiced with “I don’t give a f***!” attitude of the general population of the Gatwick flight attendants. I am after cruising over the English Channel what the staff think about Walsh and Cruz, the new M&S food on board, work conditions and monthly rosters, everything presented with a loud voice and a “coloured” language which didn’t need a business power point presentation. Great mix between the photos in the in-flight magazine and the conversational background.

When during the service the young flight attendant in his days off (he was on 3F) was offered a tray with the delicious afternoon tea his replay “Give my just champagne, I don’t eat that s***!” made me realise that I paid £400 for that … scone!

I was trying to ask for a glass with water before landing but, the steward on duty, Andrew, was too busy leaning on the empty seat next to me and compare the December schedule with the flight attendant/passenger behind me. I found that during Christmas they have a “cross over” somewhere in Saint Lucia so they can plan some “funny fun”. Later after another 10 minutes during landing preparation (was it not part of their safety duty to check the passenger?) they realised that was a mistake and the St Lucia fun must be postponed as their flights don’t match. How exciting this slice of cabin crew life was … NOT!

A mother with two very young children was requesting to use the lavatory and one of the baby was crying in obvious discomfort but the Terror Service Manager refused it based on “safety reasons” while he was finishing his left-over scone in full view hiding his common sense in his pocket. At disembarkation when the poor boy left the aircraft with wet trousers the two flight attendants in the front were very amused like they just watch a good stand-up comedy show. Really?

When I was discussing my experience with some friends the next day the only replay that I got was “Why did you fly with them?”

And for sure is time for all of us to answer this question.

BA – how low can go ?

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TO FLY TO … DISAPPOINT

•November 2, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Promises and expectation versus Customer Experience reality on a British Airways flight

For many years, I was a loyal customer of British Airways. With all ups and downs our “relationship” was always special. Even when their former motto of ‘the world’s favourite airline’ was replaced with the company’s coat of arms and the words: ‘To fly, to serve.’ I was quite sure that my trips in a BA aircraft, business class will always stay the same: comfortable, on time, good value for money and a very “British service” both on board and on the ground. Big mistake.

After all the social media waves created by the fact that British Airways will in future charge for food on short-haul flights, via a commercial tie-up with the upmarket retailer Marks & Spencer, I was wondering if the product in premium cabins will be improved and in Economy BA will lower the flight price to compete with the real low-cost carriers of the world.

Now if you have an ex-budget airline CEO running the ship – as BA does with ex Ryanair and Vueling managers – the company will be taking the leadership from someone who could think this is ‘evolving the brand’ (to a model he is more familiar with?) And the reality is that the BA value proposition can stand the increase in cost and reduced service experience that we passengers will be treated to in future and BA will see a little bit more (quite bad) profit!!

OK, the background to ‘my experience’ is a trip to Bucharest on the 1st of November in Club Europe. I booked the flight choosing to fly BA as it is a full service carrier, which I prefer to the low-cost alternatives, connecting flights with Lufthansa or KLM or a direct flight with the Romanian airline TAROM (as the timeframe was more convenient with BA).. My expectation, based on hundreds of flights with BA over the years, was that it would be better from a safety point of view i.e. a relatively new and well maintained aircraft; sensible seating with a decent leg room; plus, perhaps, a nice gastronomic experience during the 3h flight and a luggage allowance. My expectation was based not only on previous experience but the company’s own advertising (http://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/travel-classes/business/club-europe)

After my arrival in Heathrow T5 I was surprised to see that the check-in area for Club Europe was clearly marked and separated for the rest of the check-in lounge and a host was guiding you to the check-in line. I didn’t care the host was hosting on her face a grimace difficult to be called a “welcoming smile”. What I did care about is that after saying hello to the host making my way to the check-in line I was stop by the Lady Cerberus with an unpleasant “Excuse me, this is business class”. Like a naughty school boy I returned to the lady and show her my boarding pass which allowed me to access the “exclusive area”. Check-in  was smooth and I was airside in under 20 minutes. Enough time for some duty-free shopping in an airport already decorated for Christmas in case you will forgot the BIG DAY still placed in my calendar on 25th of December. But you can start your Christmas mood in November after placing in the attic the Halloween mood.

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Finally, having enough time before boarding I made my way to the Business Lounge, the Galleries Club Lounge located at the same level with the Security Control which was always a little bit quieter than the others.

BA promised on their website that “when you enter our Galleries lounge you are greeted with calm and tranquil surroundings” and the “lounge is a haven of peace and quiet”. Even the photo on http://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/information/travel-classes/business/club-europe give you the temptation of stopping in the lounge. But the reality was quite different. The lounge was very busy with a 10 minutes waiting to have your boarding card check. Don’t hope for a quiet place to work or to relax…the lounge give me the feeling that I was the victim of teleportation and I was sitting in a dirty train station lounge during the rush hours. And the smelling not very clean toilets were present too.

Being a little bit hungry I was looking for the “light meals or snacks (…) especially prepared for you” and “drink from our World Wine bar” as BA promised again on their website. The only discovery was some sad sandwiches (hope not M&S, I am doing my shopping there and I can’t cope with two disappointments in one go) and after checking 4 empty bottles on display I found some warm French white wine. Therefore, I decided to cut my time spent in the “comfortable private lounge” and treat myself with some Costa coffee and some nice tasty ITSU sushi in the terminal.

The flight departed from Satellite B, which is easy to reach if you manage your time properly: 10 minutes to gates B and 15 minutes to gates C. At the gate, 5 minutes before the official closing time an announcement was made and informed us that the crew is not ready yet with the security checks and the boarding will be delayed 15 minutes. Finally, I found my seat 2F in a new Airbus 320.

On boarding the Purser was busy making coffee for the flight crew so I was greeted with a quick basic smile but No.4. The new Airbus 320 was identical with the one used by EasyJet, the same thin seat, quite uncomfortable, giving you the “chance” to feel all movements of the guy behind you, the seat in the middle blocked with a kind of a tray, and the same old over used magazines in the seat pocket. Exactly like EasyJet; the colour was different and of course the price!

Before departure the Captain. didn’t mention anything about the delay but mentioned that the airport is busy so we must wait 15 minutes before push-back and assured us that we will arrive in time because the flight is shorter due to a shortcut given by the Air Traffic Control. it is good to give your crew, particularly captains and flight crew, the words to use when things go wrong, but they also need to be smart enough to adapt what they say when they know that passengers are going to suffer because of a delay. Platitudes/insincerity only serve to inflame the situation and it was interesting to see that our captain failed to stand by the door saying goodbye to the unhappy passengers, choosing instead to remain locked away in his cockpit!

Finally, in the air, anxious to see what else BA changed in a Club Europe service. In the last 5-6 years, the product changed so much and so often, sometimes in good sometimes in bad that my excitement had a reason.

First a hot towel and a pre-dinner drink; I decided for gin and tonic and the “must have” nuts, which was always a nice touch when you fly Club Europe.

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I was waiting for the promised menu which “features irresistible meal options crafted to perfectly match the time and duration of your flight”. Couple months ago a tasty plate with canapés was offered to passengers in Club Europe. In the London-Bucharest flight I was offered the eternal option “beef or fish” with, indeed, a nice polite smile from the Purser. The tray looked like an Economy tray on a Tarom or KLM flight to Bucharest. No salad, an overlapping end-of meal option of cheese and lemon merengue and a fish which was the blandest food I ever had on-board. When I was still looking for my “very British experience” the tray was taken away.  Coffee and a second round of drinks were served shortly after the main meal service was finished. I couldn’t stop wondering where that smooth, stylish service from my last flight went. Of course, the crew was polite and nice as much as they can, shaping their enthusiasm according the product offered to passengers. And another odd element: no other drink service; you needed to ask for another drink as the crew was busy to stop the Club Europe toilet in the front from leaking and flooding the entire front galley.

During the flight I overhear a innocent crew conversation and felt sorry for the regrets regarding their previous airline and service. Were they talking about BMI which was “eat” by BMI couple years ago? I don’t know, but I missed for 2h and 40 min the old BA Club Europe.

 I think the only genuine smiles were of the staff at the arrival gate in Bucharest. That wiped the bad experience of the “priority” bags arriving in the last lot on the luggage belt.

If BA wants to maintain a premium brand position, it needs to reconsider adopting the practices of low-cost carriers. You are paying a very low fare and then know what to expect. BA, however, should not cut all possible corners in Premium cabins. It is a full-service airline, with high entry cost of a ticket, that now wants the product structures of a low-cost provider with “premium cabin” option, like Norwegian or Air Europa. Is a kind of a Vueling “business class” product, but at a far much higher price. That is a commercial decision and while it might generate a few more pounds, will cost the business in the long run. It is no longer acceptable to mislead and compromise that experience, hoping that, firstly, no-one will notice and, secondly, they will not call you out on social media or old-fashioned word of mouth for ‘cheating’ on the expectation.

I planned for December a trip to Dubai and taking now in the account the experience in Club Europe in a London-Bucharest flight I am considering very seriously to look somewhere else where for the same price I will get a better business class service. And Emirates as a direct option or Gulf air as a one stop flight sounds better.

For sure after this experience I am not happy to pay a premium price and flying on a low-cost carrier service style. I think that should be close to illegal and, certainly, an awful brand experience. Rather bizarrely, the over used BA High Life magazine was in the seat pocket – attempting to suggest how a BA experience supposed to be, truthfully, only serving to emphasise what you were missing.

To be honest I don’t expect any reactions from BA. For sure that “To Fly, to serve” is a big umbrella which can cover any alteration of real British customer Service practices polluting it with Ryanair and Vueling (obviously) strategies. Of course, the impact in the mid-term for them is less business from me and the knock-on impact of me relaying this story, therefore undermining the tens of millions the company spends on brand advertising.

But who cares about that?

To fly … to disappoint!

ba