juliamhammond

Airlines

Border control queues in Europe – and how to beat them

Today’s news has been full of horror stories of British travellers caught up in excessive queues at some of Europe’s busiest airports.  If you haven’t seen it, try this article from the BBC:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-40824027

Sadly, though changes in legislation have worsened the situation, it’s nothing new. Miss your flight, and you’ll find the airline and the airport pass the blame back and forth, leaving you frustrated and potentially out of pocket. So what can you do?

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Take out a decent insurance policy

Many travel insurance policies will cover you for missed departures, but check the small print in case there are any exclusions. Also check the amount covered – and work out whether this is going to be sufficient to cover a night in a hotel and the cost of a replacement flight.

Get to the airport early – and don’t wait for your gate number to be displayed

Queues for security are going to be lengthy in peak summer season, so you should be aiming to get to the airport in plenty of the time regardless. But once you’re through security, you need to go through passport control too. In some airports, this can be tucked away in a quiet wing of the airport serving just a few gates.

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If your gate isn’t displayed early, by the time you start to line up, you may have cut it too fine. I almost missed a flight from Malaga to London a couple of years ago for this very reason – so don’t risk having to be very un-British and queue jump like I did. And if I pushed in front of you and you’re reading this, I’m very sorry – and hope you made your flight too!

My advice is to go through passport control even if your gate isn’t displayed on the boards – if there are multiple passport controls, in my experience the border control officials will redirect you. Just look suitably apologetic as I did and make sure you head off in the right direction.

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Consider booking a package

If you book a package holiday with an operator with has its own fleet of planes, such as Thomson (other operators are available!), then the same company is responsible for getting you from the hotel to the airport and from the airport to Britain. At the very least this is going to reduce the buck-passing.

Have you any tales to tell? I’d love to hear your experiences.


Everything you need to know about flying

The title’s a bit of an exaggeration – at the very least a work in progress – but I’m in the process of creating an index for my blog posts. Here’s the first instalment. With years of independent travel under my belt there’s a lot of advice I can share about airlines and air travel. From finding business class flights at fares lower than economy to what to do if your flight is cancelled, there’s a blog to help.
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Tips for saving money on flights
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2014/10/15/nine-tips-to-save-money-on-flights-and-one-to-avoid/
Cabin baggage charges
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/07/22/the-increasingly-thorny-issue-of-cabin-baggage/
What to do if you miss your flight
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/27/what-to-do-if-you-miss-your-flight/
How to travel business class for the price of economy
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/07/18/how-to-fly-business-class-for-the-price-of-economy/
Are business class flights really worth the extra?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/06/14/are-business-class-flights-really-worth-the-extra/
How to survive a long haul flight
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/05/03/how-to-survive-a-long-haul-flight/
What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2017/01/19/whats-it-like-to-travel-long-haul-on-a-budget-airline/
Thoughts on airports
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/05/24/its-almost-time-to-go-to-the-airport/
Transport options from Heathrow to London
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/12/07/how-to-get-the-best-out-of-a-heathrow-layover/
How to get the best from a Heathrow layover
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/how-to-get-the-best-out-of-a-heathrow-layover-part-2/
Getting your money back if your flight is cancelled
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/finally-a-win-against-cityjet/


The increasingly thorny issue of cabin baggage

Airline Jet2 are in the news this weekend, with an article in the Daily Mail highlighting their new policy of charging for guaranteed cabin baggage.  You can read the article here:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4719308/Now-airlines-charge-bring-HAND-LUGGAGE.html

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I was a little suspicious, given the propensity of the Daily Mail to be economical with the truth, so I did some fact checking.  Buried within the Jet2 website, and revealed as far as I could see only after you have reserved flights and are well into the booking process, is the opportunity to pay extra to keep your bag with you:

Subject to availability, you can pre-book “guaranteed cabin baggage” for an extra charge, and if you have purchased this service, you will not be asked to put your hand baggage in the hold (unless it exceeds the weight and size requirements detailed above or operational requirements apply).  If we require your guaranteed cabin baggage to go into the hold for operational requirements, you can contact customer services to arrange a refund for any charges which you have paid for this service.

I tried a sample booking of a flight from Stansted to Dubrovnik.  The cost of ensuring your cabin baggage made it into the cabin with you (subject to those operational requirements not being necessary, of course) was £3 per person per leg, a little more than the £2.59 quoted in the Mail’s article.

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Would you pay it?

I’m not sure I would.  But then I’ve rarely taken a suitcase on board and instead prefer to check it or, better still, leave it behind.  I find it irritating to wait while wheelie after wheelie bangs its way down the aisle, though with airlines charging to put such luggage in the hold, I can hardly blame those doing so.  But this not only slows boarding, it often means that there’s too much luggage to fit.  I’ve taken many a Ryanair flight – the airline guarantees only the first 90 carry on bags will make it on board – and watched it all kick off as people are asked (or not) to hand over their bags.  My fairly small day pack has always made it on board, I presume because it can fit between my feet and wouldn’t have to be placed in the overhead bins.

Wizz Air, it would seem, have had to backtrack on their plans to charge for guaranteed larger sized cabin baggage.  You can take on a bag of up to 42x32x25cm free of charge, but to carry on an item up to the maximum dimensions (55x40x23cm) there’s a price to pay.  Until 29th October 2017, this can be anything from 10 to 20 euros according to the small print on their website (35 euros if you take care of business at the airport), but this add-on disappears after that date, supposedly incorporated into the price of your seat.  Have Wizz caved under the pressure of customer complaints, I wonder?

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At this point, you’re likely to be muttering things about budget airlines, but they’re not the only offenders.  Increasingly, scheduled, so-called full service airlines are supplementing their fares with extra fees and charges.  And when it comes to revenue “earned” by such add-ons, you might be surprised to learn who the worst offenders are:

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Some airlines are worryingly reliant on additional revenue as a share of their total earnings.  You can read the full report here:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/airlines-that-rely-most-on-extra-charges/

So, even on a scheduled airline, if I want to select my seat in advance (and even as a solo traveller I might, or risk being stuck in that middle seat that no one wants) I’m likely to have to pay for the privilege.  At the moment at least, I’m not likely to have to hand over my carry on luggage but who knows how long that might last?

I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this.  As travellers, if we’re determined to do so on as low a budget as possible, we’re going to have to think hard about what we really need to take with us.  I shared my packing tips here:
https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/packing-tips-from-someone-who-learnt-the-hard-way-2/

Taking large suitcases will perhaps become a luxury rather than the norm.  It will certainly be interesting to see if Jet2’s new policy lasts the distance, and if it does, whether other airlines will follow suit.

What are your views?  Would you pay to ensure your bag comes on board with you or do you think it’s one rip-off too many?  I’d love to hear what you think.


What you need to know about the US laptop ban

Much has been written in the press over the past week on the subject of a ban on larger electronics items entering the United States with airline passengers.  Following on from the March policy shift in which inbound flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African destinations, there’s speculation that such a policy could be extended to European destinations.

What’s the current situation?

At present, passengers travelling to the US from ten airports are affected: Queen Alia International Airport (AMM), Cairo International Airport (CAI), Ataturk International Airport (IST), King Abdul-Aziz International Airport (JED), King Khalid International Airport (RUH), Kuwait International Airport (KWI), Mohammed V Airport (CMN), Hamad International Airport (DOH), Dubai International Airport (DXB) and Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH).

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Large electronics items, including laptops but also larger cameras like DSLRs and tablets such as the iPad, must be carried in the hold and cannot be taken on board the flight.  How airlines are implementing this varies, but some are offering gate check in and secure packaging in the form of bubble wrap and cardboard boxes.  This policy doesn’t extend to the return leg; flights departing the US for these ten airports are not subject to the same restrictions.

So why are people getting upset?  Surely they can do without their gadgets for a few hours?

As talk grows about an extension to the ban, so too do certain worrying facts emerge.  Many of these larger items are powered by lithium ion batteries, which up to now have been banned from the hold for safety reasons.  They carry a risk of catching fire, something that could have disastrous consequences if unnoticed.  The FAA itself stated its concerns in 2016:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/lithium-batteries-spark-catastrophic-plane-fires-faa-warns/story?id=36816040

There’s more here, from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-uk-flights-usa-america-donald-trump-british-airline-pilots-association-heathrow-a7736076.html

There’s also the issue of sensitive data on company laptops and directives from some businesses to their employees requiring them to keep such equipment on their person whilst travelling.  For the regular tourist, it’s more a case of a lack of insurance.  I might just about be able to cope without my iPad on a long flight if I went back to those old fashioned paperback things I used to lug around, but if the airline then loses my suitcase, my travel insurance policy won’t pay out.  I really can’t afford to replace my DSLR if the lens gets smashed in transit.  So, with a flight to Houston looming on Friday, I’ve been watching the TSA website and Twitter like a stalker.

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So have they made a decision yet?

There were some misleading headlines last week, like this one in NYMag following a piece in The Daily Beast:

http://nymag.com/selectall/2017/05/laptops-banned-in-plane-cabin-on-flights-from-europe-to-u-s.html

Retweeted and quoted to within an inch of its life, The Daily Beast’s article, claiming an announcement would be made Thursday 11 May, sparked an angry reaction.  In part, there was a touch of indignation along the lines of European nations being way too civilised to be lumped together with the Middle East.

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But amidst all the fuss, some serious issues for the Americans began to be raised, not least the impact that it would have to the US economy and its tourism sector.  This article from The Independent explains:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-on-flights-electronic-devices-travel-industry-airlines-travelport-a7737671.html

Yes, you read that right: 1 in 3 potential foreign tourists would think twice about going if this policy becomes a reality.  I’m among them.  I’d be seriously concerned about that fire risk, especially on such a long flight.

Here’s a follow up article, also from The Independent:

http://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/laptop-ban-europe-economic-tsunami-travel-industry-electronic-devices-flights-plane-hold-uk-usa-a7740396.html

I’m hoping, as we get closer to my departure date, that even if the electronics ban is widened, the changes won’t take effect until after I’m there.  Getting my valuables back to Blighty in one piece will be, as it has always been, down to me.  But after that, much as it pains me to say given my love of the USA, I’d have to give it a miss, at least until the TSA came to its senses once more.  It was reported that the TSA met with representatives of the US’ major airlines last Friday to see how a ban could be implemented; sources indicate that further meetings were to be held with EU personnel today.  At the time of writing, there’s been no announcement.

Watch this space.

Update 18.5.17

Well as it turned out we didn’t have to wait too long for an update.  Common sense has prevailed and the EU have persuaded the US authorities that widening the ban on larger electronics would be foolish:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39956968

The ban still exists for the ten Middle Eastern and North African airports, so think about your safety before you opt to fly.  Happy travels!


Flight news: Honduras

While parts of Central America have been blessed with direct flights from Europe for some time, others have been a bit more disconnected.  Honduras is one of those places.  But now, with the launch of a weekly flight from Spain, it’s possible to get there a little quicker.  When I visited Honduras a few years ago, getting there involved an overnight layover in Houston, adding both considerable time and expense to the journey.  Air Europa’s flight from Madrid at first might appear to be less than ideal, arriving shortly before 5am in what was once the world’s worst hotspot for murders.  (San Pedro Sula has now passed the Murder Capital of the World crown to the Venezuelan capital Caracas.)  But this late departure means that a connecting ticket from the UK is possible and you no longer have to lose a day of your holiday just to get there.

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Honduras might not be the first place that springs to mind if you’re looking to holiday in that region, especially in terms of safety.  But it’s easy to get straight out of San Pedro Sula and the early arrival means you’ll have plenty of time to reach somewhere both safer and more beautiful well before nightfall.  Copan Ruinas is one such place.  I spent a pleasant time there in 2014, riding horses out to the Guatemalan border, drinking the excellent locally-grown coffee and exploring some of the least crowded Mayan ruins in the region.  Visitors were outnumbered by scarlet macaws by some considerable margin.

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While I’d still be loathe to recommend spending any more of your time in San Pedro Sula than is absolutely necessary, the country’s Caribbean coast is as laid back as they come.  It’s well worth risking the journey back to San Pedro Sula’s airport after your Copan Ruinas sojourn to make the short hop to Roatan Island.  It’s the perfect place to unwind in the sunshine, sink your toes in the sand and sip a cocktail or two.

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When are we going?

 


What’s it like to travel long haul on a budget airline?

It’s one thing to pay a few pounds and hop on a Ryanair flight across the Channel, but what’s it like to travel long haul on one of the budget airlines. I put it to the test using Norwegian to carry me across the Atlantic and here’s what I thought.

Flights: LGW to SJU

Norwegian operates flights twice weekly departing Wednesdays and Saturdays.  They offer fares from under £300 return if you book well in advance which compares favourably with scheduled airlines serving other direct flight Caribbean destinations such as Antigua and Barbados.

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Check-in
Unlike their European routes, it’s not possible to check-in online with Norwegian for destinations to the USA and that included our destination, the US territory of Puerto Rico.  That’s not such a big deal when you’re departing from a small airport, but I was a little apprehensive as to how long the wait would be to check in at London’s busy Gatwick Airport.  In the event, it took less than half an hour to get checked in and proceed to security which wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Baggage

Checked baggage comes at a price; £25 for each sector if pre-booked but significantly more if purchased at the airport.  Travelling with my husband, we decided to take one full sized case and the rest as carry-on.  My much travelled Samsonite wheelie almost exactly matches the dimensions of Norwegian’s permitted carry-on at 55 x 40 x 20cm (Norwegian allows 55 x 40 x 23cm).  It’s a light case, which is a factor as it has to be lifted into the overhead bins and doesn’t go over the 10kg weight limit.  But it’s also spacious, and easily big enough for a week’s worth of clothes for the Caribbean, though if you were heading further north at this time of year to one of the big US cities served by Norwegian you’d be struggling for space.

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Seat assignment

Normally, my husband and I wouldn’t bother to pay extra for seat assignment on a short haul flight, but we decided to go ahead as this was a nine hour flight.  Each way cost us £25, a total of £100 to sit together.  I do think that’s steep.  We chose from an online seating plan opting for the back row of the plan (row 40) as this has a 2-3-toilet configuration, meaning we expected to have the section to ourselves.  You can see it here at Seatguru:

https://www.seatguru.com/airlines/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle_Boeing_787-8.php

However, although we were still on a 787 Dreamliner, the plane we ended up travelling on had 42 rows ( though 40 on each of the side sections) and they were 3-3-3.   This was what we got:

https://www.seatguru.com/airlines/Norwegian_Air_Shuttle/Norwegian_Boeing_787-9.php

So we ended up with someone next to us which was a bit of a disappointment.  Fortunately, few people seemed to be using the rear toilets so it wasn’t too disruptive.

Legroom

On the outward leg, we found the space to be really cramped.  Neither of us are exceptionally tall, but we do have long-ish legs.  When I checked I was surprised to find that the legroom at 31-32 inches was similar to most long haul airlines.  The width also compared to the norm at about 17 inches, though this would have been more comfortable if we’d have had window and aisle as we expected rather than window and middle which is what we got.  We could have opted to pay extra for Premium Economy which offered a seat pitch of 46 inches.

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Food

Neither of us felt it would be a good use of our funds to pay for the in-flight meals, opting instead to have a meal before we left and take snacks on board and pay for drinks airside.  We were happy with this decision; the trays of those fellow passengers opting for meal service looked OK but not over-generous and we didn’t feel we’d missed out.  A lot of people had done the same as us.  It was an even better decision on the return journey when we had a shorter journey (thanks to a speedy tailwind) and of course, being an overnight flight, we slept for a significant portion of the journey.

Entertainment

The choice of entertainment was perfectly reasonable though I had a good book to read so didn’t end up watching any of the content.  There were recent films I hadn’t seen.  You should be aware that you either need to purchase headphones or bring your own.  Also it’s worth noting that the WiFi that you find on some European flights with Norwegian isn’t available on their Trans-Atlantic routes.

Blankets and pillows

These aren’t given out free of charge as you’d find with a full service airline.  You can buy a blanket at a cost of $5 but we found bigger, fleecier and warmer ones in Walmart for $3 a pop.  Since we unpacked, they’ve been appropriated by the dogs!

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Dreamliner

This was my second time on a Dreamliner after flying from Easter Island to Santiago de Chile on one in 2015.  They make a big deal about cabin pressure, mood lighting and windows that have sunglasses mode, and claim this helps to alleviate the issues with jet lag.  I’m not sure this had an effect, though as there’s only a 4 hour time difference the effects of jet lag would be minimal anyway.

The verdict

Would I fly Norwegian Trans-Atlantic again?  Yes, I’d definitely consider it.  I was happy with the experience overall though I’d see if I could upgrade to an extra legroom seat next time.  In the interests of marital harmony I’d probably be best not to comment on whether sitting with my husband was worth £100!

Update May 2017

At the time of writing it’s unclear whether Norwegian will be flying the LGW-SJU route this autumn. The airline is considering whether it will fly to Puerto Rico at all, but if it does, the London route will probably be the only one to survive the cull, managing 81% occupancy last season. Watch the press for details.


Just back from – a day at Copenhagen’s Christmas markets

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What next after the German Christmas markets?  Germany’s legendary Christmas markets draw the crowds each winter and rightly so.  As I found out when I visited the Bavarian city of Regensburg a couple of weeks ago, they’re atmospheric, colourful and every bit as good as people say they are.  You can read about the trip here:

https://juliamhammond.wordpress.com/2016/11/25/just-back-from-a-day-trip-to-regensburg/

So how do you top that?  With a visit to Copenhagen: take the German Christmas market model, swap the Glühwein for a glass of gløgg and add a healthy dash of hygge.

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Best of all, if you haven’t the time or the cash to go for longer, it’s possible to visit the Danish capital for the day.  It was my second trip to the city.  The first was back in the days when the cheapest way to reach Copenhagen was to fly to another country.  That wasn’t quite as daft as it sounds, as the airport in question was Malmö’s in nearby Sweden, a fast train ride across the Øresund Bridge.  This time, I flew direct to CPH, leaving Luton after watching the sunrise on the 8.40am flight.  Ryanair uses satellite terminal F which is a long walk from the main terminals.  Factor in a five to ten minute walk just to get across the airport and don’t expect a travelator.

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From the airport it’s about a fifteen minute train ride into central station, with plenty of English speaking staff at the airport to help out at the ticket machines.  I opted for a 24 hour travelcard (not to be confused with the expensive Copenhagen Card) which cost 80 DKK.  As it turned out, I walked more than I’d intended, but had I chosen to cover more ground, the card would have been valid for unlimited journeys in the city centre by train, metro and bus.  By just after midday, I was in the city.

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Now like I said, I’ve been to Copenhagen before, so this blog isn’t going to be reviewing the Amelienborg Palace or the Little Mermaid.  This time, I was focused solely on Christmas.  Emerging from the station coffee in hand, the Tivoli theme park was right across the street and impossible to miss.  I decided to save it until the end of the day and instead walked the short distance to Axeltorv Square.  My first Julemarked of the day was a small affair, a cluster of stalls all bearing the names of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories.  It was a little underwhelming, just a few stalls selling items like sheepskin rugs, warm hats and Christmas decorations.

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A few minutes from Axeltorv Square, a rather large wooden pig caught my eye.  Behind it was a wooden Christmas tree which looked to be made out of broken up pallets or something like that.  A few huts made out of the same material formed a crescent around them.  This was a Julemarked with a difference, focused on recycling, a statement about the excesses of this festive holiday.  But it wasn’t preachy: instead it embraced the spirit of Christmas on the cheap.

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The huts all offered a way to help out with the expense of present-buying.  There was a Swap Shop where you could leave an unwanted gift and in return got to choose something for yourself.  A woodworker’s hut provided tools and off cuts for those who wished to be creative and make a gift.  The lady running the plant hut gave me a small packet of tomato seeds which I shall plant when I work out when’s the best time.  The largest hut of all was a recycling “factory”.  Inside, piles of yarn, card and other craft materials were piled alongside glue guns.  Several people were making table top Christmas trees, but what made this unusual was that most of them were adults rather than children.  What a great idea!

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Next up was a stroll along Strøget to the wonderful department store Illums Bolighus.  This amazing store is a mecca for any devotee of Scandi-style and its products, though expensive, are the stuff of envy.  Every display could have held its own in a fancy homes and interiors magazine.  The question was not whether to buy, but what to leave behind.  Illums Bolighus, if you’re reading this, open a store in London won’t you?  I promise I’d keep you in profit.

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A few doors down from paradise at the end of the street, was another Christmas market.  The entrance was marked by a wall of Christmas trees ready to go home and the market itself housed more food and drink stalls than any other market.  At the sausage stall, a man munched on a hot sausage in a roll.  At his feet was a dog.  It sat, as motionless as if it was doing the Mannequin Challenge, eyes fixed on his master’s hand.  Tiny drops of saliva dripped from the wet fur around his mouth and puddled on the floor.  Finally, the man was finished, save for the last half inch of sausage, which of course the dog had as a reward for his patience.

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There was still more to come.  Straddling a pathway opposite the beautifully decorated Hotel D’Angleterre, the Kongens Nytorv market was probably the busiest of those I visited.  Located between Nyhavn and Strøget, a fat queue of tourists wound its way between stalls selling everything from churros to ham hocks, night lights to sheepskin slippers.  There were craft stalls and of course, many more gløgg huts.  The crowds were frustrating and as it was still daylight, the life size polar bear models looked tacky.  I would return that way after dark, when they were illuminated and looked better for it.

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Through Kongens Nytorv and out the other side I breathed a sigh of relief to have wriggled free of the crowd.  Fortunately, I was only a stone’s throw from Nyhavn and yet another market.  I sat on the quayside enjoying a glass of gløgg – not too fussed on the addition of blanched almonds but the raisins were a welcome find at the bottom of the glass.  If you’re not sure if you’ll like it, ask for a free taste.

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This time I decided to have a bit of food before exploring the market.  I found that the further down the quay I walked, the lower the prices were for comparable dishes.  A huge plate of roast pork with crackling with red cabbage and potatoes later, I had a browse round the stalls.  Hopefully my husband isn’t reading this but I did come home with a very soft and fluffy cushion cover.  (I am kind of banned from buying more cushion covers.  It’s become a bit of a thing.)  Sunset was spectacular, casting a pretty pink glow over the harbour side buildings.

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As night fell, there was one more Julemarked that I wanted to see before I left and one that was worthy of the long queue outside.  Yes, the queue was round the block.  What did I expect on a Saturday night?  Tivoli opened in 1843, making it the world’s second oldest theme park (the other is in Denmark too, but much less famous).  Tivoli is expensive, with a hefty entrance fee of around £15 just to get in (the rides are extra) but it is such a charming place during the run up to Christmas that it’s worth it.

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There was plenty to see, both in terms of the theme park itself – I loved the carousel – but also in terms of independent retailers and the range of food stalls.  The temperature had slumped well below freezing though by this point and with so many people packed into the huts and restaurants, there were very few places where I could escape that intense cold.  The lights and decorations kept me going for a while – they were superb – but by 8pm I was really feeling it despite being properly kitted out in thick padded jacket, scarf and gloves.  It was time to grab a cup of cocoa from the station cafe and return to the airport in plenty of time for my 10pm flight home.

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I ♥ Copenhagen