#beautyatsea #inprogress

•March 18, 2019 • 3 Comments

After 8 cruises with MSC last year is not a secret anymore that I am a big fan of the Italian Cruise liner. This year I already booked 5 cruises and I was thinking to go on a back to back journey on their new ship MSC Bellissima.

Reading all the reviews online, checking photos on Instagram and messages on Twitter I got very excited. But suddenly I remember that couple months ago, Amazon deleted a lot of profiles of people writing reviews in exchange for products. Unfortunately, in the cruise industry is still trendy to write good reviews if you get a free cruise. So, I never trust, apart from www.cruisecritic.com, any reviews on-line or in the newspapers of “influencer” thirsty for free holidays. On the other hand, reading the first on-line reviews of passengers on different sites (the excellent Facebook forum page https://www.facebook.com/groups/MSCBellissima/) I saw plenty of ridiculous complaints and unnecessary moaning.

Therefore, I decided to book a mini cruise in Yacht Club and see with my own eyes the reality on board MSC Bellissima.

click here to see the teaser for my Bellissima mini-cruise

Because the virtual cruising space is full or general descriptions of different aspects of MSC Bellissima I will focused today only of a list of thumbs up and thumbs down of some of the features of the newest MSC ship which I have time to experience myself.

So, let’s take it step by step:

EMBARKATION

I embarked the ship in Barcelona and everybody knows already that is one of the most accessible ports if you travel within Europe. Using a private company ( I always use www.rideways with decent prices and very reliable, both in service and, if needed in service recovery) or one of the taxis (with fixed prices between airport and cruise port) in front of Barcelona–El Prat Airport.

681055_man_512x512 Embarkation for passengers in YC is always incredible with MSC. This time I needed only 7 minutes from the moment when I stepped out of my transfer car and until the moment when I enter my cabin. At my arrival the assistant head butler Jacky Solonirina and his team was waiting in a dedicated space for YC passengers. My luggage disappeared in a second and after that Jacky escorted me to a waiting lounge where the embarkation formalities were done before I managed to finish a glass with Prosecco. Under the attentive guidance of Jacky, I skipped the lines for check-in and security and I reach in no time the lift who took me straight to the deck were the YC Reception was located.

click here to see a video report of the embarkation on MSC Bellissima

When the elevator doors opened two familiar faces with genuine smiles were waiting for me: the YC Director Rosalia Scaldaferri and the Head Butler (a living legend on MSC world) Dani Agung Sri Prasetyo. And that professional warm and genuine smiles will be a constant companion for my entire mini-cruise. It is way you always have in the feeling in the Yacht Club that you are home away from home. And I didn’t believe that my luggage arrived in my room less than 30 minutes after I started the embarkation process.

thumbs-down-512  Now, to be objective, I saw the lines and the “organisation” for the embarkation of the rest of the ship and I think is something were MSC can pay a little bit of attention. Or the in-famous last words “YOUR EXPERIENCE MAY DIFFER” could be associated with an MSC cruise.

YACHT CLUB

681055_man_512x512  The Yacht Club is one of the best products in the cruise market at the moment, when you think about “a ship within a ship”. The level of attention to details, passenger’s focused service flows, genuine TLC, wow moments and personalised touches make Yacht Club the best, if not the only, way to travel. Maybe I am wrong, but Bellissima learnt some lesson from her sister ship Meraviglia and this time the Yacht Club seemed to be more spacious, more in line with the idea of luxury, paying more attention to passengers needs and expectations. The corridors, reception area, public spaces in general, didn’t give me the Meraviglia’s feeling that MSC are obsessed with more spaces (= more money) forgetting the comfort of passengers in YC.

thumbs-down-512  I still don’t understand the logic of MSC, building an exclusive elegant luxurious space with inside cabins (YIN) and leaving outside Yacht Club the fabulous Duplex Aurea Suite (D3)

TOP SAIL LOUNGE

681055_man_512x512  The TOP SAIL LOUNGE is still the heart of YC: an elegant and comfortable space for any moments of the day. The new cycle of snacks and nibbles is far much better than on the Fantasia class ships, addressing any gastronomic expectations and wishes. And once again the service is here at it’s best with an attentive and personalised service day and night. I loved the fact that the choice for live music change every evening and is an important part of the success of this public space.

click here to see a video report about the Top Sail Lounge

thumbs-down-512   Taking in the account the quite high number of passengers in YC, the lounge is quite small and can be sometimes crowded (during the evenings or special events organised for YC passengers).

YACHT CLUB RESTAURANT

681055_man_512x512  In so many previous MSC cruises, YC Restaurant was always the weakest link, with both hard and soft product in need for some serious improvements. On Bellissima the restaurant was an unexpected surprise.

click here to see a video report about the Yacht Club restaurant

For breakfast, lunch and dinner the menu was a culinary hit, and every meal was very close to what you expect in a high rated restaurant: excellent ingredients, fantastic mix of flavours with inspired gastronomic twists, state of art plating and, very important, something for everybody.

The Maître D’ Giovanni was leading in a perfect manner a very professional team of waiters, assistant waiters and sommeliers transforming every meal in an epicurean experience. Balancing perfectly the service between a white glove approach and a friendly “home like” meal Giovanni and our excellent waiters Konstantin and Giovanni never forget to mix the etiquette with personal recommendation and subtitle product knowledge and discreet wow moments for every meal in YC Restaurant. They know their passengers and after first few days they learn your preferences and always recommend you something new or different. And if you would like to try different dishes from the menu you could just ask to bring you half portion, also you could ask to add or not to add some ingredients and they do it for you. I had only one problem with food. So when some people write in their reviews that they were almost starving and that it was “impossible to find something to eat” I feel a bit sceptic. Please don’t forget that MSC is Italian company and food is mostly European and Mediterranean with Italian touch. But if you expect to eat burgers or steaks every meal you could be a bit disappointed.

I loved the design of the restaurant, now opened to the lounge downstairs creating a livelier atmosphere in both space but guarding the individuality of each of them.

YACHT CLUB GILL AND BAR

681055_man_512x512   Whoever had the idea of developing a private pool area in what is now YC Grill & Bar deserves a big accolade. I absolutely love this place which, when the weather is good, can be a serious competitor for the lounge downstairs. With fresh food served for every breakfast and lunch, with tasty all-day long snacks and with an excellent and extensive bar service the top deck dedicated exclusively to YC passengers is a place to be, to eat, to drink to chat or relax. Once again the staff here is always ready to transform with a genuine smile and high professionalism any wishes in your daily cruise routine.

click here for a video report of the Grill&Bar

YACHT CLUB CABIN (YC1)

681055_man_512x512Balanced living and sleeping areas, decent size balcony and bathroom, comfortable bed, modern decor, pretty good amenities and a lot of “make my cruise pleasant” gadgets =- this are the main coordinates of a YC1 cabin. I found the wardrobe and storage space a little bit more generous than on Meraviglia but I still need to find a solution for my 2 weeks cruise in December(and extra interior cabin seems to be a good idea). Maybe, for future buildings, MSC will take in the account that not all of passengers are travelling with low cost airlines where “hand luggage only” is the main rule and, maybe like me, some find dressing up as a sign of respect for the impeccable staff on board.

click here to see a video report of the cabin 18018 YC1

681055_man_512x512   Will not be fair to talk about my cabin without mentioning the excellent service of my butler Edwin Garcia and his ability to wear many hats in one day being a perfect personal assistant, greeter, event planner, etiquette expert and household leader and with a genuine smile and approach always focused on highly personalized service. Edwin and the head butler Dani Agung Sri Prasetyo mastered an incredible attention to detail and, most importantly, an incredible ability to bond with guests and make them feel comfortable, all while maintaining a professional distance.

thumbs-down-512   MSC needs to stop calling their YC1 cabin: “suites”. According to any hotelier’s dictionary a suite is “an accommodation with connected rooms under one room number, typical with one or multiple connected spaces and bathrooms” (see NCL, RC or Cunard suites). YC1 is, let’s say a “junior suite”, especially if you think about the bathtub being replaces with a shower on MSC Bellissima. For somebody with a lot of cruise experience, travelling for the first time with MSC this misleading information can be quite a disappointment.

GALLERIA BELLISIMA

   681055_man_512x512The two-deck walkway with its giant 480-square-meter LED screen, shops, restaurants and cafes is indeed breath-taking. Managing to mix two other original ideas: the RC’s dome covered wide space and NCL’s open space restaurants/bars/lounges concept, Bellissima, like Meraviglia transformed this area in the heart of the ship. Love the idea of a wide range of optional dinning spots and for sure on my back to back cruise in December I will try all of them)

thumbs-down-512  Despite the deco and choice of venues (dinning spaces, bars, lounges, shops) Bellissima lost the contact with the sea in the Galleria. Walking around, day or night I didn’t have the feeling that I was on a ship…was more like a shopping centre…a big and elegant one but, still a shopping mall. Couple of times I felt sorry for the great classical trio performing on end of the walkway in an ambience which remind me of an uninspired “flash-mob” in a shopping centre.

click here to see a video about Bellissima Galleria

AUREA SPA

681055_man_512x512  Excellent venue and facilities with a wide range of treatments and packages created to satisfy any taste or wish. And I love the idea of exclusivity and free access for YC passengers. At the end of the day you pay a premium price for a premium service. Price wise, I don’t agree with passengers complaining that is to expensive; at the end of the day is all about pampering and making your holiday memorable. Or put it like that: it is you choice if you want to pay and fly to New York in a reclining seat or in a flat bed…

thumbs-down-512 The obsession of up-selling and cross-selling in the Spa is very annoying. I can’t imagine anything more distressing at the end of an excellent massage or a pampering session in the Barber shop than being literally bullied in buying one of the over-priced products. The spa manager needs to re-think the balance between revenues and customer satisfaction. I need at least couple of weeks to forget the unpleasant selling session at the end of my hair-cut and step in again in the Spa … and who’s missing the opportunity taking in the account that I will board MSC Divina next month? Not me, for sure!

NEW ON-BOARD GADGETS

681055_man_512x512  MSC Bellissima offers a stunning array of features to rival those of her sister ship, MSC Meraviglia. Some of them excellent, others hilarious. All of them expensive!

C Innovative MSC for Me technology connects you to your fellow guests, the crew and the ship itself. The app is amazing and extremely reliable making you life on board easier and more tech with a huge impact on guest experience. From check-in to bookings, from maps to chats this app is one of the best on the market and it is worth to download before you step on board.

thumbs-down-512  The big news on board MSC Bellissima is Zoe, a kind of smart speaker or voice assistant developed by Harman. Zoe is described as a personal cruise assistant personal cruise assistant. It is “the most costly employee we have ever had” said Gianni Onorato, CEO of MSC Cruises at a press conference. It is the most annoying MSC employee MSC ever had said me after 4 days “unhappy marriage” with Zoe. When I came on-board the ship I didn’t know much more than that it seemed to resemble my lovely ALEXA back home: you talk to her and ask a question that you – hopefully – then get an answer to. Zoe stands on the table in the cabin, clearly visible when you enter. She “woke up” immediately when I started talking and said “OK Zoe”. I had a little trouble understanding if I should ask my question before or after the beep that followed, that is, did the signal say that I was too late to speak or that I should wait for the tone before I started talking(the instructions in the room were not very clear). “I will start with something easy, like my cabin number” I thought to myself, but before I even had finished my sentence Zoe replied “You may refer this question to a cruise member or guest services”. Hm. New try with the same result. No help. When I asked about which show that was on for the evening, she responded by informing about drink packages and cocktails. Finally, I used some standard examples in the brochure that are next to the device and follow the questions there, for example, about where I can have dinner. Again, Zoe refers me to ask someone in the staff on board. Another attempt failed when I ask about the weather. Initially Zoe gave me the weather in Valencia (a stop in another cruise maybe) and at the second attempt she wonders if she can put on the TV for me, which I answer yes to. The TV is turned on and the weather forecast is displayed. Great! Although Zoe has been trained by 400 different people who have asked 2,2 million questions, has been programmed with 800 common questions, speaks 7 languages ​​and has been trained in 30 different accents – she doesn’t impress me, I don’t think Zoe she works very well. None of the people I asked on board had got Zoe to work satisfying. After Zoe’s experience I promised myself that I will never cheat my Alexa with another cyber-woman.

ANIMATION TEAM

thumbs-down-512   I was trying to find a reason for a thumb up when taking about the animation team and the activities on board but was kind of impossible. The day time and evening activities were like a flat line on a cardiac monitor with couple of participants which didn’t find another place to go and the famous MSC parties were an uninspired mixture of the same songs with the same dance routine. Even the signature White Party didn’t bring the usual vibe on board. You need more than some old songs, childish dance movements and second-hand props to create a good party. The funny thing is that I recognised couple of faces from the amazing parties on Seaview or Preziosa and I started wondering if the fault stays not with the team but the leader. Unlike the other +30 cruises with MSC I didn’t see the Cruise Director leading his team during parties and various activities in the right direction. And therefore, the animation team was like a giant octopus with strong tentacles but without a head. On the same not is funny how I remember the name of the Cruise Directors in the last years but I don’t remember the name, or even the face, of the one on Bellissima last week.

click here to see a video report of a MSC Bellissima party

thumbs-down-512  I didn’t have time for any shows on-board or Cirque du Soleil production but for sure talking about animation team and their activities, MSC need to re-consider the target: we are not in a kids club or in a cheap sea-side resort full of drunkies with no taste in music or fun

click here to see a video report of the White Party

THE CREW

681055_man_512x512  The Hotel Manager Giuseppe Maresca lead in all departments an excellent team who place the guest in the centre of daily routine. The excellence is part of the entire MSC experience and, despite the fact that acknowledgement the loyalty (for black card holders for example) and the YC guests still needs a bit of work, the MSC crew is the one making the cruise line unique. From the Sky Lounge to Top Sail Lounge, from the buffet team to YC Grill & Bar, everybody knows how to create great memories. And after a short chat with Pipo Maresca I realised how true is quote “It takes someone strong to make someone strong”

click here to see a video THANK YOU to MSC Bellissima crew

PUBLIC AREAS

681055_man_512x512 The Sky Lounge and the Champagne bar were my favourite spots when I decided to leave Yacht Club. Trendy designs and deco, inspired location on the ship made these two places excellent spots to sip a good cocktail before dinner. For sure I will have more to discover in December, but this time around the ship hosted too many corporate team’s events and most of the lounges were booked for private events.

thumbs-down-512 MSC needs to re-think very seriously the drinks package system. I know that in the current market revenues have a capital importance, but other cruise lines created a more user-friendly system with less tiers. On Bellissima, the run for making money created so much confusion not only for passengers but for the crew too. And once again the up-selling ruined some excellent venues. Took longer to order a drink in Sky Lounge just because you have to wait for fellow passengers to understand what is included or not and the question “Is this included in my package?” was the over-heard motto day&night. Was impossible couple of times to enjoy a glass with good champagne and delicious oysters in the Champagne bar because the place was full of beer drinkers taking the advantage of their restrictive drinking package.

thumbs-down-512  On other ships YC cabin gives you the possibility to drink whatever you want whenever you want wherever you want. Again, a premium service for a premium price. On Bellissima the rule changed overnight. You can have a Hendrick’s & tonic in YC as part of your Premium plus (or whatever the name is) package but if you go to Edge Cocktail Bar you are downgrade to a Gordon’s. It is a false economy of scale which will bring to MSC only the frustration of somebody paying more and getting less

Time for some conclusions

Of course, everybody experience is different, and consistency is not one of the strongest points of MSC. From my point of view, Bellissima is a great ship but the hashtag “beautyatsea” is a little bit too much; I think #oneofthebeautiesatsea” is more appropriate. MSC still needs to learn that is better to under-promise and over-deliver.

My recent experience was a great proof of the fact that when you check reviews of cruise lines you need to place yourself somewhere between the hype of “professional” reviewers fishing for freebees and the “professional” moaning so trendy now on-line.

click here for a PS of my cruise

Far from being perfect as a hard product, almost excellent from the soft product point of view Bellissima wow-ish me in this short cruise. Of course, she has space for improvement and I can’t wait to meet her again for two weeks in December. Or maybe sooner if I will decide for MSC cruise no. 6 this year. And changing a bit the final questions in the “0 to 10” MSC post-cruise survey:

Would you recommend MSC to your friends and family? – 9

Would you recommend Bellissima to your European friends? – 9

Would you recommend Bellissima to your UK friends? – 5

Would you book an MSC cruise in the future? 10+

logo-bellissima-white

FINNAIR – A GENUINE EXCELLENT BUSINESS CLASS FLIGHT

•January 12, 2019 • 1 Comment

As you remember at the end of last summer I fall in love with Finnair and it’s short-haul product (https://leonardmiron.com/2018/08/14/ay-a-possible-new-love-in-the-air/). In December trying to organise my New Year cruise starting from Dubai I came across some incredible fares offered by Finnair for the route Helsinki-Dubai-Helsinki. Sounds a little bit of a hassle to fly to Dubai from London via Helsinki but believe me that using AVIOS for the LHR-HEL-LHR flight and 2 nights at the Hilton Airport Hotel in Helsinki the final price was almost half that the extorsion requested by British Airways. And this was nothing if you take in the account the excellent product and on-board service which place well behind their British partner from One World.

And in a cold morning of December I was ready for my long-haul experience with Finnair. It is a little bit excessive to say “long-haul” as Finnair consider the flight to Dubai as a hybrid between their short and long-haul products. But the quality of the service and the comfort of the passengers are still the main goals for the flag carrier of Finland.

Finnair does still occasionally offer very good Business Class deals on its flights to Dubai (which operate during the northern hemisphere winter) but the issue has always been that, while the fares could be very good, the aircraft on offer were not. Finnair has traditionally operated narrow-body aircraft from the Airbus A320 family on its Helsinki – Dubai route which means that the Business Class cabin only offers short-haul style seating like in a configuration 3 – 3 with the middle seat kept empty – that’s not exactly the lap of luxury is it? The good news is that Finnair is adding its excellent wide-body Airbus A350 to its Helsinki – Dubai route for winter 2018/19 and that means that the Business Class offering goes directly to a proper flat bed. Using this larger aircraft allows for cargo to be carried in greater amounts, and the rotation of the aircraft allows this, so, why not taking the advantage of the European trade?

After a good search on the internet I finally secured my seats on an Airbus350 for both outbound and inbound flights.

The excellent experience with Finnair started with a breezy check-in and a dedicated security fast track at Helsinki’s Vantaa International Airport and carried on in the Non-Schengen Finnair Lounge. It’s quite a walk from the security area to the departure gate for non-Schengen flights plus a passport control (e-gates style) but as the flight was quite early (8.10AM) the lounge was quiet and almost empty (see my previous review https://leonardmiron.com/2018/08/13/3-airports-5-lounges-48-hours/) and the smoking area, lucky me, only 3 minutes away.

After spending some time in the Finnair Business Class Lounge I proceeded to the boarding gate. The Finnair ground experience, however, could use a little work. The gate area was crowded full of family with children and a free-for-all ensued when boarding was announced, despite priority lines indicators. Fortunately after the boarding gate the access in the aircraft was done by one door for Business Class (D1L) and another for Economy Comfort and Economy (D2L)

Finnair’s A350 was love at first sight: spacious seating, unique Finnish touches at every turn, signature cocktails, funky Nordic food and one of the best cabin crews I’ve ever experienced turned “just another flight” into absolute delight. It’s not exclusive to Finnair, but the Airbus A350 offers a phenomenal cabin experience. Humidity stays just about right, oversized windows let in lovely sun and noise is minimal. The Finnair A350 cabin offers a minimalist but sleek style, with grey blue seats, green Marimekko touches and nice, large entertainment systems. Of course, the mood lighting is off the charts as well. I absolutely love Finnair’s cabin design and finishes. I know some may say that it screams IKEA, but when the airline is based in Northern Europe, I think that’s perfect. And I also loved all the splashes of colour in the cabin, from the lime green pillow to the blue amenity kit and “folder.”

The configuration of my flight had business class is one cabin with eight rows (32 seats)

The business seats are spacious. The 1-2-1 configuration means everyone has direct access to the aisle, as well as more privacy since you don’t meet anyone’s eyes when sitting down. The design is elegant white with grey detailing and makes the interior seem airy, although some might say it lacks character. Splashes of colour come from the amenity bag and the pillow and bedding, in white and blue and white and green respectively.

The IFE screen comes out from the side of the seat in front and has a 16-inch screen which can be tilted in various ways, depending on the angle you are at when watching. The tray table is removed from the armrest and then folds out to a decent, if not generous, size. As you’d expect on a brand new aircraft, it was firm and I had no trouble using it to work on my laptop. There is in-seat power with capability for US, EU and UK plugs. In addition, you can charge your phone or other devices using the USB power.

Upon settling in, the foot well area is seemingly wider and larger than British Airways. This makes a huge difference in sleep quality, as you toss and turn in the night. The entertainment system is extremely intuitive, and for a welcomed change to in flight entertainment, seemed to be without bugs. There was never a blip, reset or screen lag in scrolling. Power ports are well placed up and out of the way of any elbows, as are headphone jacks. No one likes rolling over in the night and unplugging their phone. Rounding out the tech summary, Finnair offer solid Bose noise cancelling headsets and WIFI is available on all A350 aircraft.

Finnair got things just about right when it came down to bed mode on the A350. The seat is extremely comfortable in lounge position but is spacious and nicely padded in bed mode. Marimekko pillows and blankets give a fun feel to the setup and the duvet seems to be the perfect weight to offer nice heat and comfort, without overheating. The entertainment screen is virtually non viewable in fully flat mode, which is the only slight draw back for those who enjoy flat bed movie night. With the reduced cabin noise of the A350, it’s extremely easy to get a decent sleep.

I loved the IFE system, which not only contained a handful of great movies, TV shows, games, and music, but a nifty map highlighting in-flight service. Wi-Fi was complimentary for business class passengers and worked well. My favourite part of the IFE, however, was the two high-definition cams. It is one of my favourite features of the A350 especially for take-off and landing. I’m not sure if it’s just the distortion of the camera or if it’s because of the altitude at which we were flying, but you could see what looked like the curvature of the earth.

The toilet was bright and modern with hand sensor taps. I liked the plant in the holder and the large window…just for being different than the grey depressing toilets on BA planes. The amenity kit was sparingly stocked, with eyeshades, earplugs, hydrating cream and lip balm. Also waiting at my seat was a dotted-folder, which had a menu, wine list, breakfast card, and duty free card.

It was truly hard to fault Finnair on cabin service. As a BA Gold Card holder and taking in the account the lack of consistency in recognising any status on British Airways flights I was more than surprised by a welcome handshake and greeting by name before departure. It is something simple which goes a long way to establish positivity before the wheels leave the ground. This initial impression followed on by personal yet professional service, without having to chase anyone up for top ups or other needs. In a word, the crew was proactive, in the best of ways. Meal service was elegant, prompt and cleared with impressive speed and style at the same time.

As soon as I settled in, one of the business class flight attendants offered me a pre-departure beverage. I had the choice between champagne, water, and Blueberry juice – a Finnair specialty. I chose the champagne, which was Nicolas Feuillatte. I absolutely adore the the Iittala Ultima Thule glassware Finnair uses in business class. A hot towel was also offered. Just before take-off lunch orders was taken, and a second round of drinks were served as the plane was pushing back from the gate.

One unexpected twist: the cocktails. Though not overly complex or boozy, Finnair’s signature drinks hit the spot in the very best of ways. The cloud-berry and champagne aperitif went down way too easily, and the double berry with blueberry juice and blueberry spirit was a repeat order.

One hour after take-off the breakfast was served…maybe the only weakest link of the entire journey. The cold Ciabatta with Mozzarella and tomatoes   reminded me of something that you will grab in the airport before catching a low-cost flight. Fortunately, the drinks were served nonstop during the flight and the beverage menu focused on quality and not quantity, On the return flight one hour before landing in Helsinki ice-cream was served, which was a good idea instead of a cold snack as we landed sometimes around 10:30PM.

The service is the area I would have to say Finnair absolutely exceled in. The staff on board were very friendly, approachable, and responded to call requests like a fairy in a puff of smoke (seriously, it was so instant I could hardly believe it). The crew on both my flights were really accommodating with all guests and this made the Finnair experience a memorable one.

During the flight Duty Free was offered with two options: on-board and pre-order and as a nice touch you could order for the return flight in advance. I couldn’t resist and ordered 8 of the Iittala Ultima Thule glasses to take them with me home.

The entertainment system was brilliant. The content kept me busy with MamaMia2, The Greatest Showman and one episode of RuPaul Drag race but , the actual interface was my favourite of any airline ever:

  • It was the most responsive system I’ve ever used, as there was virtually no lag after selecting options
  • There were no ads before starting shows or movies
  • The entertainment system had an awesome flight overview, which showed a timeline of the flight, including when meals would be served, etc.
  • The airshow was possibly my favourite airshow system ever, as it was easy to use and showed so many cool angles

Less than 2 hours before landing the lunch was served with two choices for the main course plus a vegetarian option; the flavours were excellent, and I was happy that the portions were well judged to be relatively light Drinks were served with and during the meal with interesting names on the wine list – including French, Spanish, Portuguese and Australian vintages and of course challenging to order but extremely tasty Finish cocktails

From Dubai to Helsinki dinner was served less than two hours after take-off in the same formula like on the outbound flight: a starter, a salad, two choices for main plus the vegetarian choice, cheese platter and Godiva chocolates as dessert. About 90 minutes before arrival in Helsinki a muted pinging sound woke passengers gently and ice-cream was served, which was a good idea instead of a cold snack as we landed sometimes around 10.30PM.

The Airbus A350 is such a gorgeous, quiet, smooth plane. Even the take-off and landing rolls were extremely quiet; I barely realised we were taking off or touching down.

Click here to see a video report of the flight HEL-DBX

Click here to see a video report of the flight DBX-HEL

I’m so happy I had the opportunity to finally sample Finnair’s business class, especially on their brand new A350.I love the A350, and from a passenger comfort standpoint it’s a win. Between how quiet it is, the tail camera, and the general cabin ambiance, it’s one of my favourite planes to fly.

I also loved the attention to detail in Finnair’s service. From the colourful pillows and amenity kits, to the flight attendants wearing gloves during boarding, the product was extremely well thought out. Service shined on both flights…I wish to commend every single Finnair crew on the flight for providing genuinely friendly, caring service. They were chatty…I like that. But they were also service-oriented. Drinks were refilled, the cabin was monitored often with extra water bottles offered.

All things considered, Finnair’s A350 business class still ranks high. The reverse herringbone seat and wifi are what matter most to me, while the special touches and quirky design are what set Finnair apart for me. When we landed ahead of schedule in Helsinki and I was truly sorry the flight had ended. Finnair is now absolutely one of my favourite carriers in business class. With great service, a comfortable seat, tasty food, and free and functioning wi-fi, I’d call this a near flawless business class flight.

Fix the Ciabatta issue and it would have been flawless.

QUEEN VICTORIA – DECEMBER 2018 A pseudo SWOT Analysis

•January 12, 2019 • Leave a Comment

In December last year I travelled with Cunard Queen Victoria on V836 from Southampton. Perfect choice for a pre-Christmas escape from the south-east English weather. I booked a Penthouse (Q4) – 7101 and I experienced a nice cruise but without a WOW factor.ship

After my return home I received the on-line questionnaire and when I reached the most important question for any type of business: “If asked, how likely is it that you would recommend Cunard to a friend or colleague?” I needed quite a long time to decide. And finally, the answer was NO.

WARNING: if you are an unconditional Cunard fan please stop reading this review now. I am a Platinum member with Cunard line, I always book trips on Queens grill, I travelled on all 3 ships but … I always keep a balance between “living the (marketing) dream” and reality. And I don’t want to upset anybody-ish.

NO modern cruise line can match Cunard Line’s legacy at sea, dating back to 1840 and its trans-Atlantic steamboat days. Cunard operated the first passenger ship lit by electricity, the first with an indoor swimming pool and the first to offer an around-the-world voyage, in 1922. But time changes, the cruise market is very competitive today and the old saying “we never forget that you have a choice” seems to be forgotten by Cunard.

I was trying to find why a trip, which could be a mesmerising series of experiences and memories ended as a folder of nice photos on my external drive. Suddenly I remember the nightmare of my last degree: SWOT Analysis. And I decided to look back to my trips V836 through the magnifying glass of a pseudo- SWOT Analysis

Queen Victoria, which during the years, established herself as a favourite way to explore the world has without doubt a lot of STRENGHTS in her pocket. In my previous trips, she always delighted me with her special appeal, where elegance and unique features combine seamlessly to create a unique atmosphere and warmth developing a sense of escapism.

My Penthouse Q4 (#7101) was a perfect choice for this trip: a private space of approximately 520-707 square feet, featuring marble bathrooms and whirlpool baths, plus an expansive private balcony which commands impressive sea views. Cunard spent more than $40 million on refurbishing Queen Victoria in 2017, but the work done in Fincantieri shipyard didn’t elevate the in-room experience. Don’t get me wrong, #7101 was a very nice stateroom but small for a penthouse, it is more of a suite. Cunard don’t make the best use of the space and a lot is wasted. The new deco adds gave me the feeling that I stepped in to an expensive room in an assisted living facility with old fashioned scatter cushions and incredibly ugly choice for the balcony’s loungers and chairs. The odd layout with lots of doors can explain the lack of storage…seems to be plenty in photos but, when you try to unpack you realise that the size of the wardrobe, drawers and shelves are matching a low-cost one suitcase only traveller profile.

Click here to see a video report about Penthouse Q$ (7101) on Queen Victoria

I always considered that on a Cunard cruise you pay mainly for the gastronomic on-board experience. And this time was the same in Queens Grill restaurant. An intimate and sophisticated dining room offered for every breakfast, lunch and dinner the finest culinary experiences with finest food and wines. The staff – Dom, Jesse, Michael together with the Maître D’ provided an excellent efficient and elegant service during the cruise, quite close to the expected renowned White Star Service. I said “close to…” just because Cunard started to cut some corners in Queens Grill Restaurant. Is already history the Silver Service style featuring the waiter individually serving each guest from a large platter, QG restaurant moving now to the “mainstream cruising style” of dishes brought from the galley on plates covered with plastic lids.

Of course, you can’t blame the amazing staff in the restaurant for the “flambé-mania”. Sorry…? You never heard about that? Let me explain you: Cunard was proud in old days to offer in the QG Restaurant the French type of service for dinner, requiring adequate space since food is prepared table-side for guests on a cart (gueridon) and cooked foods such as steak, beef wellington, or bananas foster prepared on a hot plate, or rechaud on the tableside cart. Now due to the quite high number of tables in the restaurant this special touch was erased and the only remain of those glorious dinners was the flambé touch of some dishes. But for those passengers using the cruise as a “Titanic veneer” flambé started to be the word of the day, every day, in a race between tables, setting in fire everything possible, overloading with work the restaurant staff and feeling the space with a strong “call the firemen” smell. In some nights the restaurant looked like a village in Germany during the witch-hunt from 1600s.

Click here to see a video report of the first dinner on board

I tried the Lido for lunch a couple of times and the food was cold and a very poor selection with no service from the waiting staff who never once offered to bring drinks or cutlery just avoided eye contact and carried on chatting.

Being innovative and taking the risk of being trendy for sure improve the customer experience. And on-board Queen Victoria I found the perfect example: the “gin and fizz” themed menu in the Midships Lounge, which includes a variety of wines, Prosecco, Cava and Champagne alongside premium gins and spirits. One night, Adam the bartender in the Midship Lounge help me to explore with a lot of professionalism and plenty of knowledge, the fascinating and intrigue world of weird gins. It was what I call a wow moment…so it is possible if you want to add something extra and create some revenue at the same time.

I was talking earlier about the White Star service, a Cunard trademark, framework of service standards that go above and beyond, exceeding the expectations of guests from the moment when you step on board. On Queen Victoria was a little bit different: a boarding process efficient but flat and a waiting area for passengers in Grills looking like a check-in area for premium passengers of a low-cost airline.

Click here to see a video report from the embarkation day

Upon entering the ship, I went through the security in to the lobby and stood there for a few minutes and decided there was going to be no bell hop greeting and being escorted to our suite as advertised by Cunard. I arrived in the suite and stayed there about 30 mins thinking the butler would be there to greet me but since no sign of them I went to lunch. On my return I was in the cabin about one hour before the butler turned up.

The butler was very efficient, and the cabin steward kept the cabin clean and tidy but is weird how I can’t remember their names. Normally, in all my previous cruises, the butler’s name stayed always with me as a pleasant memory, but this time, the lack of personal touches places the experience in to “another cruise” box. And I’m not talking only about the HK team, everywhere on-board everybody was doing more or less excellent their job without creating memories or experiences…just their job!

Click here to see a video report of QV leaving Southampton

It is not a secret anymore that the competition on the cruise market is fierce and the luxury segment led by Crystal, Seaborn or Regen gained recently new dimensions with the “ship within ship” concept of MSC’s Yacht Club. Therefore, Queen Victoria needs to address her WEAKNESSES.

First of all, overall deco. Classy and luxurious doesn’t mean at all old fashion. I was expecting after the 2017 revamp to meet an elegant Cunard Queen, keeping the charming art deco style but bringing a fresh touch.

 

“This investment in Queen Victoria just goes to demonstrate Cunard’s passion for delivering an experience that exceeds guests’ expectations in luxury travel by sea,” said Simon Palethorpe, Senior Vice President, Cunard. In realty the changes brought QV in line with other mainstream ocean liners. The new Penthouse Suites on Deck 8 aft, adopting once again the “Titanic veneer” obsession, with the new colour schemes create a subliminal claustrophobic feeling behind the apparent luxury defined living and sleeping spaces.

43 Britannia Club Staterooms were added, of course increasing the revenue, the upgraded and refreshed Winter Garden features now a real tree in the centre of the room but a lot of bright, colourful furniture making the place more overcrowded than comfortable and stylish during the day and the Hemisphere’s nightclub reworked into The Yacht Club with art-deco-ish gold-ish dividers and blue and green furniture transforming the place from a successful night spot in a blunt day/night lounge.

The interesting thing is that during the cruise I watched on TV a documentary about QE2, admiring the revolutionary, trendy, almost avant-garde features of on-board venues and deco. Something was lost during the years…Why Queen Victoria keep both her anchors in the past (not very sure which) without sailing in to the future?

The weakest link on Queen Victoria in my December cruise was the entertainment and that’s includes not only the shows but the daily and evening activities too. The reason behind this is that Cunard didn’t updated the passenger profile: a 60+ passenger in 2018 is completely different than a 60+ passenger in 2000. Especially on trips with a lot of sea days other companies try to offer a wide spectrum of activities targeting different generations, interests and level of activities. On Queen Victoria the main daily “attractions” were needlework and watercolour painting classes, couple of dance lessons and the favourite of our Cruise Director – chairobics. The iPad and Facebook lessons were almost “offensive” for 2018 when everybody read and write on-line reviews and shopping on-line was more successful, according the statistics, for 60+ customers last Christmas. On those sea days I had the feeling that all these activities were part of a secret plan to have passengers frozen in boredom in the lounges or in the elegant new re-fitted Winter Garden.

Click here to see a video report about a day on board Queen Victoria

The Cunard’s main competitors erased long time ago the idea of a bearded inaccessible man talking 30+ minutes every midday from the ceiling – The Captain. The big boys on the cruise market made the officers and the crew part of the guest experience and travelling with Viking, Seaborn or MSC will always give the chance to be approached and have a friendly chat with the men in white giving you the feeling that you are a “GUEST” on board. On Queen Victoria you must join the line to shake Captain’s hand for each cocktail and apart of a monotone and long everyday 12 o’clock speech you wonder if he really exists or if he knows from his golden cage what’s the “PASSENGERS” experience of cruising on Queen Victoria.

Not long time ago I was so excited by Cunard’s enrichment program and I remember couple of cruises when I spent hours in the Royal Court Theatre witnessing captivating lectures performed by true magicians of public speaking. In December, on Queen Victoria, an unbalanced double choice keep me away from the theatre after the first try: Jim Kennedy – Former Director Kennedy Space Enter, quite interesting and trying hard to be entertaining at the same time and Ken Vard – Maritime Expert with long, boring “reading from the notes” talks about history of cruise liners (a very appealing topic killed with passion couple days in a row). I think Mr. Vard’s Titanic’s drama approach was the only occasion when I couldn’t wait for the famous ship to sunk! Somebody missed the idea that the lectures are not part of a dull second-hand University schedule but are part of a not at all new concept called infotainment/edutainment. But that’s cost money and Queen Victoria was sailing to make a profit!lecture

In my 10+ previous cruises with Cunard, the Gala Balls were the highlight of the evenings on-board with finest dinner jackets and ballgowns sweeping around the Queens Room and an eight-piece orchestra setting the tempo to an evening of dancing. This time, the three Balls were just a pale copy of the former glory. The Black&White, Masquerade and the Royal Cunard events, despite the amazing performance of the live orchestra didn’t manage to be the evening magnet like before. Could it be the target audience of this particular cruise, could it be the “I have 90 minutes to dance before bed” animation team or the result of tiredness of doing nothing during the day? Who knows! What I remember is how, at the Masquerade Ball, the couple of us wearing masks were eaten up by the waves of dirty looks coming from a sea of Matalan tuxedos and Primark dresses. And all those nights ended with a hand full of couples rehearsing their dance steps and starting from the same corner of the dance-floor in case of a mistake. Looking at them I remembered an excellent line of Darcey Bussell in one of Strictly’s episode: “Stop counting the steps and enjoy dancing!”

The live orchestra was once again amazing, but Queen Victoria didn’t score this time with the dance Band Changez or the DJ. The Yacht Club (former Hemisphere) which use to be the hottest night spot on-board until early hours was now dominated by the mediocre performance of the band and the “I’m too good to be here” attitude of the lead singer plus a DJ with no sense of the floor, who managed to make the dancers to run way every 4 songs with his choice of music. And no surprise that the same vibe was repeated during the sail away parties transformed from a celebration of glorious weather evenings in time fillers before the first dinner seating.

Queen Victoria needs to wake up because they are plenty of OPPORTUNITIES out the without massive costs which will increase for sure the guest experience.

The accomplished resident musicians were able to create an enticing ambience and the resident pianist was setting an elegant tone to every evening in the Commodore Club. They can be more than a warm welcome on board and melodic accompaniment to Afternoon Tea; adding a contemporary touch and placing them in the centre of a musical event will be for sure a highlight of a cruise

The magnificent Royal Court Theatre with its three-tiered venue unsurpassed in form and function, an ambience much that of a 19th century theatre, with rich brocade fabric dressing the walls, a deep red velvet curtain, private boxes featuring an ornate frieze of gold leaf, and murals framing the walls above the stage is a unique opportunity to bring back to live memorable shows. I had the chance to see two during my cruise: “Dance Passion” and “Hollywood Nights” with exquisite performances of a live orchestra on stage and breathtakingly sound and lights effect. This time the dancers and choreography were quite impressive, but the resident Royal Court Singers reminded me of a end of the year performance of a Stage School.

. And I don’t want to forget the amazing experience of the collection of sixteen private boxes – the first-ever at sea – that frame the stage and afford 48 lucky guests exclusive seating from which to enjoy the performances. Seating from two to eight guests each depending on the size, the boxes are furnished with graceful armchairs and cocktail tables. Individual-sized champagne bottles and sweet or savoury treats are served by white-gloved theatre ushers. Perfect opportunity to enjoy a world class show if you have one to enjoy!

Click here to see a video report about shows at Royal Court Theatre

If anything, perfectly encapsulates Cunard’s service and sense of occasion, it is the prized daily ritual: Afternoon Tea, served by white-gloved waiters every afternoon in the Queens Room. Indulgent finger sandwiches, scones and pastries accompany Twinings fine leaf teas, as the orchestra provides a melodic backdrop. It is a unique moment which can benefit from eliminating the rush service feeling and a kind of a dress code for guests. Of course, Grills guests may also retreat to the more intimate Princess Grill restaurant, with waiters waiting for the service to end and focusing on guests known from the evening service – this made the entire experience more a food service than a recreation of an old tradition.

The world is full these days with gadgets which can be adapted to increase the guest experience on board Queen Victoria. It is not acceptable in 2018 not to be able to check your account on an interactive screen in your cabin or to call room service for a late order when other cruise lines brought the modern technology closer to their passengers. Being traditional and stylish doesn’t mean that you must watch old fashioned designed programmes on internal TV channel, order a DVD to watch a movie, or spend a minute or two trying to catch the attention of a busy waiter for a drink. Crystal, Viking, Celebrity, NCL or MSC found Hi-Tech solutions to all these issues forcing the technology to serve the idea of a cruise focused on comfort, flexibility and choice. The excuse of 60+ market doesn’t exist anymore when everybody has at least a smart phone, a tablet or a laptop on-board.

When the cruise market is dominated by the power of choice, my lovely Queen Victoria faces a series of THREATS which can damage her position on my favourites ship list.

For many, many years Cunard relied upon a market groomed by the 60s and 70s cruise liners experience: unique, trendy, upmarket. I had the chance to talk with passengers travelling on QE2 still talking about the vibe on board and telling me that now this feeling is lost in the mass-production in cruise industry. The risk is now that this market will stop cruising sooner or later due to obvious reasons and Cunard didn’t act in the last years to gain passengers in their 40s or 50s. Viking, Crystal, MSC and Celebrity acted a little bit faster and now they attract a market which started to be loyal. Once again being traditional, stylish and classy doesn’t mean boring and old fashioned and the passenger’s profile change from year to year, not from generation to generation like before.

I am sure that Queen Victoria will find a way to please different generations and lifestyles with activities, programmes and events. It is a well needed plastic surgery session to erase the wrinkles which I saw on her forehead during my last cruise.

To keep sailing QV needs to be profitable. It is a fact. Lowering the price to have the ship always full, bringing the concept of mass-production in their cruising style have their advantages and disadvantages. The effects of mass-production are universal: the cost of goods/services kept on falling which meant that more people could afford to buy them. But that evolution contradicts the marketing promises of Cunard to be “a lasting legacy of historical connection to the White Star Line and honours the golden era of these elegant and luxurious vessels” Walking on the ships’ decks and looking at the black and white photos hanging on the walls you easily realise the distance between eras. In the cruise industry you can make a profit without compromising the elegance, exclusivity and standards and Viking, Crystal, MSC’s Yacht Club or NCL’s Haven are “sailing” proves that a high price attracts a certain clientele which appreciate every effort made to achieve a modern elegance, luxury. If not, the risk is to have a too white plastic veneers instead of a durable, discreet and elegant implants.

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I know that these pages will upset the loyal admires of Cunard and Queen Victoria for criticising their beloved ship and cruise line.

I know that these pages will drive crazy my University teacher for not respecting the rules of a SWOT Analysis.

But I was just trying to understand why in December Queen Victoria offered me instead of durable memories just a “nice” cruise. I was just trying to understand why, in the last 5 years, while keeping constant the number of 10-11 cruises/year, my Cunard bookings dropped from 5 to 3 to 1 and, until now, 0 for 2019.

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Your River Cruise Was Affected by High/Low Water Levels—Now What?

•November 15, 2018 • 3 Comments

Rivers are an increasingly popular, care-free way to tour Europe. And yet—like all other travel—they’re subject to nature’s whims, as we saw this summer, when parts of the Elbe Rhine and Danube were affected by drought-induced low-water levels. This sort of curve ball can upend everything from touring to whether a ship can sail at all.

So what do you do if you spent a lot of money on your first (maybe only) river cruise, and find out that the itinerary may change due to water levels?

Here’s what you need to know.

First, note that all rivers are subject to water-level fluctuations, and the number of cruises actually impacted is small. In general, water levels affect roughly 5 to 10 percent of cruises; and when they do, it’s usually for limited portions of the route—often those that lack man-made controls, such as the Danube between Regensburg and Passau in Germany or between Turnu Magurele and Giurgiu in Romania

Low water levels typically occur in mid-to-late summer—especially if it’s been severely hot and dry, as it was this summer. In Europe—where the vast majority of river ships are positioned—conditions like those recently on the Rhine, Elbe and Danube last occurred in July/August 2015.High water levels/flooding are more likely in spring, when snow melt and seasonal rains feed rivers, making it difficult for ships to navigate unpredictable currents through locks and beneath bridges. This hasn’t happened in Europe since 2013.

The most reliable time of year to cruise Europe’s rivers is fall, when the weather is more stable—but again, nothing is guaranteed.

Because water levels can be a wild card, cruise lines outline the possibility of changes or cancellation in the fine print of most contracts (usually under an “Acts of God” clause) and in FAQ sections on their websites. If, nearing your departure date, it looks like water levels will be an issue, most lines will alert passengers via email and online notifications.

Still nature can throw curve balls, forcing cruise lines to make last-minute adjustments. Each river is unique and presents different challenges and solutions. With water levels, they can be a bit unpredictable and the cruise lines adapt on a week-to-week basis and sometimes on a day-to-day basis.

The best advice is to stay informed by monitoring emails and communication as your departure nears.

River cruises aren’t cheap, so it’s natural to stress over the idea that your trip might be cancelled or turned into a bus tour. But water levels can change dramatically and quickly; if a couple weeks before your cruise you’re notified that the itinerary may change, you’ll probably need to go with the flow and hope for the best. Calls to the cruise line beforehand generally won’t help, nor will complaining get you special treatment.

In select cases, when the line has to extensively amend an itinerary or time on-board, it may give you the option of rescheduling. If you opt to cancel on your own within 30 days of sailing, you’ll forfeit your entire cruise fare (partial amounts if cancelled further out). Travel insurance isn’t likely to cover you unless you purchased a “cancel for any reason” waiver. Some cruise lines offer a “cancel for any reason” waiver in their Travel Protection Plan that provides a combination of refund and vouchers for another cruise to be taken within 12 months of issue.

Cruise lines do have contingency plans designed to preserve as much of the original itinerary as possible—albeit often with less smooth sailing. However, some cruisers had to change ships three times and take a ferry through the Rhine Gorge. In other cases, guests took buses to some areas for sightseeing and returned to overnight on a stationary riverboat or in a hotel.

If your itinerary is significantly altered by water levels mid-cruise—what then?  Because you agreed to the cruise line’s terms of contact, unless your cruise is cancelled (upon which you should receive a full refund or vouchers for a future cruise) any conciliatory compensation is up to the discretion of the cruise line.

Your best bet: Ask about the cruise line’s water-level policy up front before booking, and if you’re concerned shell out for trip cancellation insurance with a “cancel for any reason” waiver. If you feel your cruise was negatively impacted by water levels, make your dissatisfaction known during the cruise, so the line is aware that you expect compensation for the inconveniences. Like the weather, compensation can’t be guaranteed, but cruise lines that value their passengers will likely try to offer some amends.

If life hands you lemons, make lemonade! “ Wise words to live by, but I believe when life gives you lemons, you should make lemonade…and try to find someone whose life has given them vodka, and have a party!

Click here to see a video diary of Grand European Tour, a cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam (12.10-26.10 2018)

Click here to see a video diary of Passage to Eastern Europe, a cruise from Bucharest to Budapest (5.10-12.10 2018)

TRAVELLING WITH VIKING ACROSS EUROPE

•September 17, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Join me and a group of amazing explorer from all around the world (USA, Canada, New Zeeland, UK, Australia) and discover centuries of history, architecture, traditions, tales & legends in a mixture of local life experiences and privilege access navigating the most important rivers of Europe: Danube, Main and Rhine

  • PASSAGE TO EASTERN EUROPE” on board Viking AEGIR

Once hidden behind the Iron Curtain, the eastern Danube still has secrets to reveal to a group of real Viking explorers in a cruise from Bucharest to Budapest: see Bucharest’s 3,000-room Palace of Parliament, make banitsa bread with a home cook  and be amazed by the incredible rocks of Belogradchik 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 and finally behold Budapest’s grandeur.

Click here to see the video diary of this journey

  • “GRAND EUROPEAN TOUR” on board Viking EMBLA and Viking LIF

Discover one of the most iconic river cruise itinerary, tracing the legendary Danube, Main and Rhine Rivers between the stunning landscapes of Hungary and the windmill-dotted waterways of Holland, with engaging encounters at every bend. With an amazing group of guests from USA, UK, New Zeeland, Canada and Australia absorb the atmosphere of Budapest’s Café Gerbeaud and learn the Viennese waltz, sample the food and wine of Austria’s Wachau Valley, admire Rhine Valley vistas from a 900-year-old castle indulging all your senses on this 14-day journey spanning the best of Europe.

Click here to see the video diary of this journey

 

AY A POSSIBLE NEW LOVE IN THE AIR?

•August 14, 2018 • 1 Comment

This year in December I will experience for the first time a flight on an Airbus 350 with Finnair. And I got very excited about their business class product, especially after reading the reviews on https://www.airlineratings.com or http://www.airlinequality.com . But as I already learnt my lesson trusting 100% on-line reviews (most of them sponsored by the reviewed company) I decided to manage my expectations and get a pre-view of flying Business Class with Finnair. And here I am, booking a return ticket London – Oslo via Helsinki and ready to get a taste of “BUSINESS CLASS THE NORDIC WAY- the ultimate way to travel whether on business or for pleasure” .

Finnair’s Nordic Business Class is designed to make any travel an experience, which is why tickets include priority check-in, boarding and security, access to our business lounges, two or three pieces of baggage (maximum weight 23 kg/50 lb each), exclusive Business Class meals and drinks as well as other first-rate benefits depending on the flight route. On their website Finnair clearly states that “when it comes to travelling, we believe in quality service” which is not only a advertising slogan, but a reality on board Finnair flights! When flying Nordic Business Class within Europe and the Middle East, Finnair serves a delicious high-quality meal along with complementing beverages with menus vary depending on the flight duration and destination, all built around delightfully distinctive Nordic elements.

The Finnair fleet consists of over 70 aircraft, most of which are Airbuses being one the most modern in Europe, and thanks to it producing less emissions and offering even better travel comfort on our flights. On my round trip to Oslo via Helsinki I was flying with 3 A321s and one A320 enjoying the advantages of a new aircraft (the oldest one being manufactured in 2004)

But let’s unveil my experience with Finnair step by step:

Flight London Heathrow – Helsinki (on AY1340, seat 1A)

The boarding was a little bit chaotic; Finnair use the same system as British Airways, boarding the plane in groups. The difference is that if you travel in business with BA and you miss the boarding for your group (Group 1), the boarding gate has a channel open ONLY for Business class passengers. With Finnair, if you arrive later you must stay in a kind of a line with all the other passengers. But, I wasn’t in rush so wasn’t a problem to wait until the mad rush ended.

For my flight to Helsinki Finnair used a quite new A321 and  Business Class cabin is set out very like most short-haul Business Class cabins you’ll find flying around Europe – 3 seats either side of the central aisle with the centre seat blocked off. The seats on the Finnair A321 offer 18″ of width and 31″ of pitch (leg room) irrespective of which cabin you’re sitting in so, as British Airways’ comparable aircraft offer just 17″ of seat width and 29″-30″ of pitch, this is a step up in comfort….and it felt it.

Another notable negative is the lack of any kind of power supply around the seats. I appreciate that a lot of short-haul aircraft in Europe don’t yet have power outlets but, considering the London – Helsinki route is scheduled to take around 3 hours (so it’s not that short), power should be something the airline provides. Amenity-wise there was as little as you’d probably expect on a intra-Europe flight – just a small pillow and a blanket which were already on the seats when we boarded.

The safety demo and the moving map of the flight was projected on drop-down screens and alternated with promotional videos. Even though the boarding started in time the departure of the flight was delayed and I think punctuality is the major problem of Finnair. On my round trip all 4 flights were delayed, something between 20 to 45 minutes which can make eventual connections in Helsinki a nightmare

After take-off hot towels were offered with a very quick collection of the used ones – maybe BA can learn from this and collect the used towels before the crew will have their first coffee!

No menus were passed out, but the crew verbally offered a breakfast choice of a hot breakfast or cold cuts with yoghurt and muesli. The breakfast served on board was far much better than the one usual served by the partner airline British Airways. Goodbye green scramble eggs and bizarre sausages and hello tasty ham & cheese omelette and delicious polar bred! What was offered was perfectly ok (I particularly liked the dark bread) but if you’ve left home without eating and not eaten in the lounge this may not be enough for you, especially if you choose the cold cuts option (one piece of ham, one piece of cheese and 2 pieces of cucumber)

The service was impeccable with a crew always on duty and somebody in the galley coming in to the cabin almost every 10minutes to check, clear-in or offer more drinks. And everything was done with grace and a genuine smile

The rest of the flight was uneventful (just how I like my flights to be), with some bumpy moments, a quite hard touch down in Helsinki and some nice views of towns and villages encased in green background as we flew over various parts of Scandinavia….

Flight Helsinki – Oslo (on AY0195, seat 1A)

The boarding was decent and smooth and the departure … no surprises here, 25 minutes later than the EDT. The aircraft was an old-ish A320 with Business Class cabin usual configuration: 3 seats either side of the central aisle with the centre seat blocked off. The flight was very short: 1h 05minutes and the full Business cabin was served by a very attentive, friendly and polite crew – Finnair as its best. Maybe I will repeat myself during this review, but the standout feature of Finnair was the crew who were brilliant: positive, great customer service, helpful and professional. And once again during the flight I couldn’t stop thinking of a British Airways flight with the same length (let’s say Munich or Barcelona) when you can consider yourself lucky if you get a very sad salad with 3 halves of very depressed prawns.

Despite all its cost cutting measures, I was pleased to see that Finnair continues to serve all the drinks in Business in design glass ware. Lunch, with a single option, was served on a single tray, which for a short flight was fine. The food itself was decent, but nothing to write home about. Champagne, wines and after dinner drinks were kindly offered by the cabin attendants throughout the flight. One major downside, though; the instant coffee served after dinner was totally undrinkable and even the stewardess had to admit. In economy, where coffee is about the only thing served free of charge this could be acceptable, but in Business?! Despite the fact that was a short flight the crew was taking care non-stop about the drinks and the empty glasses.

Of course, if you are in Economy cabin a wide and interesting selection of snacks and drinks are available at quite decent prices

Flight Oslo – Helsinki (on AY0194, seat 1A)

There are no announcements in the OSL lounge for boarding the next flights, so you should have your own time or scoreboard in mind. Helsinki Airport. I was checking the screen but no information about my flight, despite that the boarding time passed. So, I decided to go to the gate, which was very close to the lounge. Arrived at the gate I discover a very chaotic atmosphere, with everybody waiting in different lines, no aircraft at the end of the jetty and guess what – the boarding time was still the same on the screen, with no changes and no I formation about a possible delay. I asked the staff at the gate but instead of the answer I got a just a “ice cold” look and one word: “WAIT!”. Finally after 10 minutes I saw the plane arriving and I decided to return to the lounge and wait for boarding information to be changed on the screen. After one coffee no changes on the information board so, I decided to have a “wait a little bit more” G&T. And guess what: suddenly from “go to gate” the screen changed to “gate closing”. I run to the gate just to discover that the boarding just started in a very hectic manner with no priority line and no group assignment. Definitely Finnair is not a beloved airline at Oslo airport.

The aircraft for the flight to Helsinki was an old A320 and my seat was 1A.  On-board seating in business class was standard economy class seats with the middle seat blocked. Legroom was not any more generous, but was sufficient for the brief journey to Helsinki. The flight time was a little bit more than one hour but I was still a anxious about the connecting time and the delay (which in the moment of take-off reached almost 55 minutes). The excellent on-board experience was repeated between Oslo and Helsinki with very friendly and professional cabin crew and a product which exceeded the expectation for a very short flight: a wide range of drinks and a 3 course lunch with a not very appealing look but quite tasty.

I really loved the glasses that they use in-flight  and at home I discovered that Finnair have collaborated with the Finnish design house Marrimeko, which was established in Helsinki back in 1951, to create a range of in-flight service wear as well as amenity kits and pillows and blankets.

I landed in Helsinki with a 45 minutes delay and, bad luck, was a remote parking position so more stress waiting for the bus and transfer to the terminal. But Finnair scored again: I was very pleasantly surprised to get to arrival gate to find a Finnair member of staff waiting with new boarding passes for everyone who had missed their connections plus an express escorted connection service for those passengers who could still make their next flight. I was genuinely impressed with this (and it’s not something I’ve ever noticed on BA) because I think most people accept that things go wrong on planes and sometimes they’re late but it’s how the airline handles it that makes all the difference.

Flight Helsinki – Oslo (on AY1341, seat 1A)

Due to the previous flight delay my connecting time was very short and I had to run across Helsinki airport from Schengen to Non-Schengen zone but the electronic passport control speed up the process and I arrived in time in the departure area. Unfortunately, no time for lounge, just enough time for a “technical”, a cigarette and an adventurous slalom between the hoards trying to locate the Far-East departure gates.

My gate was located in a new wing of the Non-Schengen area, at a lower level, so a bus was needed again. When I arrived at the boarding point, looking from the top of the gate, the scene remind me once again of a Ryanair flight to Malaga: no groups for boarding, no priority line for Business Class passengers, no clear announcements – just a hectic crowd pushing to get a place in a long line waiting for the bus. Just I decided to return to the smoking area and arrive at the gate before the flight was closing.

After a long ride around Helsinki airport, which now looks like a construction site due to an expansion project, finally I stepped in to the plane ready to take me home. It was a new A321 and the on-board experience show me again that Finnair is better in the air than on the ground. The 2 hours 45 minutes flight brought back the memories of British Airways golden age on a band 3 flight with an excellent menu and a great service.

I was again on 1A and the seat itself was clean but the light grey material was showing definite signs of wear. Business class was in a 3 x 3 format with the middle seats blocked out. There were 6 rows in business class and it was about 90% full. There were a few drop-down screens in the cabin showing the flight path and some news programmes, but we were not offered earphones and I didn’t ask

The cabin crew made an announcement that passengers in economy class were allowed free water and blueberry juice, but other food and drink items had to be paid for. I think this is a lot better than the BA buy on board offering where you don’t even get that.

Right after take-off, the cabin crew came through to offer drinks and a small snack. Finnair has one thing going for it in its intra-Europe business class: hot meals. For the late lunch no printed menus but the flight attendant was giving an extended explanation of the two options available: chicken with a deconstructed polenta or pork stew with beans broccoli and mashed potato. Excellent dark rye bread as well. How lovely this meal was! Not only from a taste point of view, but it wasn’t too heavy at all, and just the right amount of food. A full drinks service, including champagne, was offered and tea and coffee followed. I had a coffee and enjoyed the chocolates but unfortunately the coffee was again instant. The service was elegant and attentive and during the entire flight, after clearing-in the crew was coming back regularly to offer more hot drinks or alcoholic beverages.

After landing in Heathrow I was quite surprise to see my suitcase arriving after a short wait by the luggage bet despite the short connection time available. Another star for Finnair service.

After my 4 flights with Finnair within Europe, I am quite excited about my next trip on December 28th on the so admired A350. I don’t think that there’s an awful lot of difference between Finnair and BA on short haul business class, but the product for short flights and the high standards of the service from the cabin crew made Finnair a winner.

Verdict: An efficient and friendly service with a comfortable business class offering at competitive prices.

 

 

3 AIRPORTS, 5 LOUNGES, 48 HOURS

•August 13, 2018 • 1 Comment

Last week, flying from London to Oslo via Helsinki and back I had the chance to re(discover) and experience in less than 48 hours 3 airports and 5 lounges.

Heathrow Airport

In London Heathrow the airline operates from Terminal 3 and because my flight was in the first outbound wave, the airport was not at all busy. The check-in area is in the A area of the terminal (close to Virgin Atlantic check-in) and if you travel Business Class you have a dedicated line and check-in desk. The entire process was smooth and fast with an excellent check-in agent ( a charming, polite and efficient young lady who was the check-in supervisor for Finnair) who gave me, with a genuine smile, all the relevant information about the first leg of my trip: boarding gate and time, the location of fast-track line for security, location of the lounge – everything you need for a good start of flight – pure excellence Finnair!

The fast track line for security wasn’t very fast at all and I ended spending more than 20 minutes in a queue. I know, you will say that that’s Heathrow, but I think you need to add the fact that, being so early (5.30AM), the grumpy security agents didn’t have time for their first coffee.

Finally, I reach the air-side lounge where I had to take a decision: which lounge to go to. One of the questions that gets asked most frequently is “which is the best oneworld lounge at Heathrow Terminal 3?” With 4 lounges to choose from now, it’s a great problem to have. Although some people have completely forgotten that in oneworld and other alliances you can use any lounge if you are travelling in business or first or have the correct status level in their frequent flyer scheme. I could use the British Airways having a Gold Executive Club card, but, based on the advice of the charming lady from check-in I chose Cathay Pacific lounge – and for sure was the best choice!

Located in departures lounge, after security is marked with the sign Lounge C, and can be easily found near to Gate 11. As soon as I stepped out of the lift I received a really genuine warm welcome from the lovely lady at the reception desk. From reception, there is a short corridor that leads to the two lounges and other facilities; loos to the left, showers at the end and the all-important lounges to the right: the Business Class lounge is the second doorway on the right and First Class is, as you might expect, the first. As I walked into the lounge, the first thing that struck me was how large it felt and how there was a sense of openness to the space. The first thing area of the lounge is the renowned Cathay Pacific Noodle Bar. The bar offers a selection of noodle dishes and some dim sum, all cooked to order.

There is a self-service drinks area, which includes a tap for draft beer (handy if you’ve overdone the chilli sauce on your noodles). For those of us who can’t leave home without an array of tech, every table has two UK sockets with USB ports so you can fuel your devices whilst you fill up on food. For the foodies, there is bar-counter seating so you can watch the chef’s as they create your dish. Being early in the morning it was the breakfast service time. For an airport lounge there was an amazing selection. There were hot breakfast options of bacon, sausage, beans, potatoes, scrambled egg & porridge, all of which looked fresh and appetising. As well as the hot food, there was a generous choice of pastries and some cereals. The food area had a great selection of juices & other cold beverages, coffee machines and cold snacks fridge. The snacks fridge held a fantastic range of options, that were appealingly presented in glass preserving jars and offered tempting flavour combinations such as ‘Salami Milano with Pickles’ and ‘Grilled Peach and Chicken Salad’.

I dropped my bags, ordered my dim sum and went up to the bar, which was very well stocked. There is an impressive selection of wines, spirits and beers, and any airport lounge that has a cocktail menu gets extra points for style. Spirits on offer included Absolut & Stolinacha vodka, Bombay Sapphire & Gordon’s gin, Remy Martin VSOP and Bacardi. Whisky lovers can chose from Canadian Club 12 year, Johnny Walker Black label, Jameson Irish, Jack Daniel’s and Jim Beam. The service at the bar was impeccable and the level of service remained high throughout our visit.

The toilet facilities are shared by the First and Business lounges. They were spotlessly clean and stocked with Aesop soap & moisturiser. It’s not often that that I’m impressed by soap, but the combination of mandarin rind, rosemary leaf & cedar atlas in the Resurrection Aromatique Hand Wash was a definite winner.

The lounges at T3 are sensibly placed close to the gates, so when the announcement was made I didn’t have far to walk. As I left the lounge the host said a cheery goodbye as I waited for the lift. All in all, an excellent lounge; next time I fly from Heathrow Terminal 3, I’ll be making a beeline for the Cathay Pacific Lounge to repeat the experience.

Helsinki Airport

My flight landed in the non-Schengen zone of Helsinki airport and around lunch time will be the perfect moment to be there: no Far East flights scheduled for that time which means now crowds lead by colourful flags on top of a stick, no running and screaming while taking selfies. The Non-Schengen area of Helsinki’s airport looks like any decent airports in Europe. I was extremely impressed by it:  is simply gorgeous, with wood floors, great shopping, and free WIFI which is easy to connect to. After one or two quick cigarettes in the smoking area – what a blessing for smokers to find something like that airside – I decided to go to the Finnair Lounge, near Gate 36 in the non-Schengen area.

As you enter the lounge, you’ll turn right if you are flying business class or left if you qualify under one of the metrics: Finnair Plus Platinum and Gold members (+ one guest), and oneworld Emerald cardholders (+ one guest), when the departure flight is operated and marketed by a oneworld airline. The “Premium Lounge” on the left side has upgraded food and beverage as well as a quiet area.

 

I decided to stay in the Business lounge with was almost empty in that moment. Greeting travellers is a modern and funky entrance with friendly staff before you emerge into a space filled with modern lighting and divided into various zones across two levels. I liked the two-level design of the lounge, its modern aesthetics, and its selection of food. The food selection contained a mix of hot and cold items, with soup, starches, chicken, salads, and pastries. Most of the food and beverage options here come self-served, with hot breakfast items available between 6am and 10am daily, followed by a salad and soup bar between 10am and midnight. But for a lounge catering to passengers flying long distances, those salads options prove very basic by international standards…Alcoholic beverages (nothing fancy) were also available as well as soft drinks and coffee but don’t forget that in Scandinavian countries spirits can be served only after 1.00PM in public places (something that I found later in the lounge in Oslo airport). While much of the lounge is geared towards relaxing and unwinding before a long flight, business travellers getting work done are still catered for, with laptop work benches offering runway views…The lounge contains a small kid’s room and newspapers/magazines. Bathrooms are clean, and showers are available upon request. For those with long connection and jetlag some funny private beds are available (actually 2 of them, and both were busy when I was there)

Bottom line: the Finnair Business Class Lounge at Helsinki Non – Schengen zone is worth stopping by if you arrive early for your flight. It’s also unusual that Finnair’s fare-paying business class passengers are relegated to this lower-level lounge, while any elite Oneworld flyer booked even on the cheapest economy ticket is instead invited into the superior Premium Lounge next door. I’d love to see that experience improved for pointy end passengers: whether that’s by opening up the Premium Lounge to business class flyers or improving elements of this ‘Finnair Lounge’ to make the two more comparable.

After more than one hour I decided to go through passport control (very easy and smooth using the electronic gates) and moved to the Schengen area of the airport. Big mistake!!!! A place that some time ago was an elegant airport, now is on the victim’s list of low-cost flights and hen and stag parties. The Schengen area of Helsinki airport remind me of Stansted and Gatwick put together in the pick of a bank holiday with “exclusive” delayed flights to Benidorm, Magaluf and Paphos. After passport control you’re forced directly to narrow lanes crossing a busy shopping centre full of passengers just trying to get through to their planes, blocking the walkways. Even if shopping in the Schengen area of Helsinki airport is no longer of interest to passengers travelling within EU, the whole airport is now packed with people panicking to reach their departure gates in time. They’ve even cut down the seating areas at all the gates, forcing passengers to hang around, wherever they can. Forget the days, when Helsinki airport was a pleasant experience!

I first went to the Business Class Finnair Lounge, located near gate 22. and discovered that was under renovation, with the airline apologising at the entrance for the “eventual inconveniences and discomfort”. This lounge was like a zoo in the afternoons, with insufficient seating for the number of flights and traffic in the afternoon, very poor food and drinks offering served from paperware, space was cut to third , air-conditioning worked poorly and appalling service. Thank God that the WIFI signal was good and I located another lounge in the area which sounded better that the Finnair one: the Almost@Home Lounge.

Next to the Finnair service desk was the Almost@Home Lounge, a lounge used by several airlines, though can also be accessed by Priority Pass members. According to www.ba.com the lounge can be used by Gold and Silver card holders and business class passengers on BA flights. After waiting more than 10 minutes at the reception by the entrance a young lady, obviously disturbed from passing a new level of Candy Crush refused me in a “Nordic polite way” mentioned that my Gold Card is not working here if I am not flying with British Airways in spite of the existence of a huge banner outside the reception mentioning the opposite. But I wasn’t in the mood of arguing so I returned (once again trough passport control) to the lounge in Non-Schengen zone. At the end I learn something from every trip.

Oslo Airport

One of three airports serving the Oslo region, Oslo Airport (OSL) is the second-busiest airport in Scandinavia and the 17th busiest in Europe. Passengers can fly non-stop between Oslo Airport and more than 160 domestic and international destinations. Oslo Airport has two runways and one terminal with two wings. Domestic flights operate from the west wing and international flights operate from the east wing. There are a total of 52 gates. Airport amenities include free WIFI internet, retail stores including duty-free shops, restaurants, bars, banks, ATMs and currency exchanges.

Oslo airport offered a better experience than the one in Helsinki. My flight was around lunch time and despite the fact that the airport was pretty busy I didn’t experienced in the check-in area or departure lounge the claustrophobic feeling given by the Helsinki airport. The terminal is spacious and light, I particularly like the wooden structure of the roof, typical Scandinavian architecture. Is indeed what you expect from an European Airport: new, modern and really elegant. The only problem: no smokers lounge after security check – so be sure that you get your nicotine macchiato before going air-side. Oslo airport is very quiet, on arrival the peace and quiet is instantly noticeable. The architects must have paid a great deal of attention to the acoustics, lovely.

The check-in for Finnair is on the far end left of the check-in area and again the process was smooth and fast, using the priority line at the desk. The guy who was operating the check-in was very friendly and polite but unfortunately, he was not able to give me any information about what I can find and look for after the security checks (passport control, lounge, duty free, smoking areas). He was not very helpful but at least he was charming.

I was quite surprise to see that Finnair doesn’t give you access to the Fast Track for security despite the fact that I was flying business class; can be another cost-cut decision? Fortunately security check was really easy and fast (even if there was a long queue)

On the airside the trendy look continues with lots of wooden accents everywhere and high, airy spaces that let in lots of natural light. But it was detail which didn’t impressed me: the departure area feels like the ultimate interpretation of an outmoded and cynically designed ‘airport shopping experience’: “Let’s funnel them through hectares of over-priced perfume and chocolate and not let them sit down.” I’m a seasoned and stoical traveller who’ll put up with most things, but this was memorably bad. In the 21st century it’s not about the retailing, it’s about the experience. Oslo airport has completely failed to comprehend that.

After doing some “window shopping” in the extended Duty Free and get bored to be amazed by the prices, “Norwegian style” I decided to go to the lounge. If you fly SAS that’s an easy task as you have no less than 3 lounges to choose from. But as a Finnair passenger you have one single choice: OSL Lounge. If the SAS lounge takes Gold and premium cabin passengers,  OSL Lounge serves a plethora of airlines including British Airways, Air Berlin, Finnair, Qatar Airlines and nearly every other airline at Oslo which is not part of the Star Alliance. Despite the number of airlines that use the lounge, along with Priority Pass card holders, the lounge was nearly empty when I visited it around noon in the middle of the week. The lounge is located on the 2nd floor of the Schengen area after security but before passport control. As the lounge takes everybody, I was told to be prepared for a mediocre service and crowded spaces.

But the reality was completely different. The lounge is decorated in a modern Scandinavian style with plenty of wood and interesting lighting with tarmac views and a variety of different seating options. The selection of buffet options at lunch was quite extensive and actually very healthy for what can be a carb heavy affair, when mass catered. For those feeling parch, dive into the self-serve beer or wine on tap or opt for water, coffee, or other local beverages. The lounge offers several seating areas made for groups, couples or those travelling alone. There is also some red recliners that are made for napping for the those who need additional time to sleep.

The OSL lounge can’t be accessed via Priority Pass and I think this helps to keep the numbers down. The catering is decent, there are numerous seating options and the staff are also friendly and proactive in clearing glasses and restocking items. By no means a ground-breaking lounge but perfectly nice to spend a few hours in. The WIFI is free in the whole airport and fast enough for streaming Netflix etc. Certain seats don’t have easy access to power points (those in the bar style areas in particular) but other than that, no complaints from me!

And guess what: if you find the way to OSL Lounge, the best kept secret of Oslo Airport is just under the corner, literally! “Premium OSL lounge is not another independent lounge at Oslo Gardemoen Airport, in fact, it’s a part of the OSL lounge that’s much newer and is known to the surprisingly few passengers. The Premium OSL Lounge itself is not brand new, as it was first opened three years ago, the problem here is that the receptionists rarely inform passengers regarding this part of the lounge, so most passengers just ignore the small entrance and stay at the rather dated OSL Lounge.” (see https://albertaviation.com/2018/07/28/premium-osl-lounge-review-oslo-airport-norway/)

As soon as you enter, you notice the pleasant and modern design of warm wood tones, muted colours and chrome combined with clear shapes and lines. Scandinavian design implemented in an excellent way. The areas are arranged clearly and comprehensibly, lounge and sitting area, bistro and dining area, work area – all very well arranged and spatially separated from each other. The seating area are capacious and the furniture are modern and full of taste. A small drawback here would be the lack of power socket on each individual seat.

During breakfast hours, they offer exactly the same spread of food and drinks for passengers in both lounges, but food & drink offerings are slightly better after 1:00 pm and some other times during the day.

The ambience and the catering offer of the OSL Lounge is really good. Coffee and a few small things to eat make the start much more pleasant and especially if you know the prices at Scandinavian airports (not only for alcohol), you will appreciate the lounge offer twice. Even with a longer stay you will find space and peace to work or to rest a little.

I always consider each trip a perfect occasion to learn something new. At least for my next trip with Finnair or SAS via Helsinki or Oslo I know how to choose wisely  before my flights!