Confessions of a mileage junkie in London

Written by admin on May 28, 2009 – 5:38 pm -

I’m a travel junkie. When I see a plane, I want to be on it. All of these “you can’t beat these fares” ads are nirvana.

When a $500+ fare to London from Washington, DC popped up on my computer screen, it was booked as if I were possessed. In addition, it was on United. I’m going to make 1K this year, come hell or high water.

United has made mileage runs easier since travelers are being awarded double qualifying miles until June 15th if registered for the promotion.

London is a wonderful city of which I never get enough. Plus there was a must-see exhibit closing that Saturday afternoon. Off I went on Friday morning flight at 10 a.m. and scheduled my return to IAD Sunday morning. This was going to be a snap. And it almost was.

It was the first time I’d taken a daytime transatlantic flight. Would it limit jet lag? Would I feel human? In essence, this was a bit of an endurance test. And thanks to a friend, I’d snared a ticket for the exhibition.

So far, so good. Because  I was arriving after 9 p.m. London time, it made sense to stay at an airport hotel. I cashed in points and opted for the concierge floor so I could enjoy all of its conveniences.

I read the hotel’s website: Shuttle service to and from the hotel, priority check in, a club lounge that remains open 24 hours a day, promising coffee, tea, soft drinks and something to stave off starvation, free breakfast, free cocktails and complimentary hors d’oeuvres each evening. And free high-speed Internet or WiFi was included, which is a must in my life or I go into a quasi- catatonic state.

This made perfect sense. I’d take the Heathrow Express from the airport to Central London’s Paddington Station. It takes only 15 minutes and is a pleasure. It’s not cheap but neither is sitting in a cab that’s stalled in traffic. It was more convenient to sleep at an airport hotel than worrying about coming and going after and before my flights.

Where did I go wrong?

How did I know that it would be nearly an hour before the shuttle would appear and there’d be £4 fee. The hotel’s lobby was overrun with people and skip the “preferential” service. I went to the lounge that looked as if it had been trashed. I managed to grab a piece of fruit but had to steal a napkin off of a room service cart that was sitting in the hallway and was still there the next morning when I left.

No problem – I’d plug in my computer and do some work. Why didn’t I understand that free computer time was exclusively confined to the lounge and I’d have to pay £15 for 24 hours if I wanted to connect.

Not to worry. By now I was both hungry and thirsty and headed to the bar. I was greeted with a room filled with people, most of whom had tattoos and were chugging beer. It was 11:02 p.m. The kitchen just closed but I was welcome to peanuts, which was fine with me. The patrons looked as if they were Rolling Thunder bikers. (I knew they weren’t since I’d left them in Washington where they’d rallied for the Memorial Day weekend.) There was no question though that this group was having a jolly old time.

OK – to bed. The room was stuffy. I was certain the air-conditioning had been off. After switching on the air conditioning, I turned to the television. I carefully followed all of the instructions. CNN was my station of choice and, carefully following instructions on the channel card, I clicked on station number 10. What I saw certainly didn’t resemble anything I’d ever seen on the Cable News Network since it was the hardest of hard-core porn. After trying the channel again, I was greeted by the same performance.

Not giving in – remember my internal clock was five hours earlier – I called the desk and a very helpful young woman informed me that I’d obviously clicked on a pay-for adult program. She’d send an engineer up with a new remote and he’d program the television so I could watch the news.

By now I was wearing the hotel’s terry cloth robe. Mohammed knocked on the door and seemed confident he could tune in the news. He was greeted by the same show and said with more than a smidgen of embarrassment that the hotel no longer featured CNN and he’d better tell the manager.

So all shouldn’t be lost, I asked him to regulate the air-conditioning. This was not Mohammed’s night since he was forced to admit that I should leave the window open — and it hardly opened — since the AC hadn’t been turned on for the season.

The yogurt at breakfast was just fine as was the espresso. Off I went to London, perused the exhibit and walked in Hyde Park. It was a stunningly beautiful day. I was back at the hotel in time for cocktails, which consisted of wine, beer and appetizers that more than missed the mark. The assembled group mumbled that the chef clearly was off-duty.

Back to the airport — the shuttle only stops at terminal one, where United operates. I hit the lounge so I could catch up on some emails and do some research. I’m always amazed what a pleasure Red Carpet lounges are overseas compared to those in the U.S. Free food, all-you-can-drink liquor plus lots of space.

Seven hours later, I was back in Washington after having had an adventure. Would I do it again? Of course. And since the flight was full, I suspect a lot of people were making mileage runs and would rack up approximately 9,000 miles.

Next trip, I think I’ll pass on staying at that specific hotel even though it received positive reviews on Trip Advisor. Plus I hope there will be CNN where I reserve.

Karen Fawcett is president of BonjourParis.

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Posted in Consumer Traveler |

Political Parties Aside

Written by admin on April 11, 2009 – 12:16 pm -

As an American whose adopted home is France, it’s so refreshing not to have to make excuses for a U.S. administration that views it as the “Old Europe.” American Expats feel a new sense of pride, even if many of them are experiencing personal financial uncertainty.  

My days of having to explain that the French like Americans, even if they don’t approve of the government’s policies, have come to an end. President Obama abandoned the previous administration’s pose of mutual (and inevitable) hostility between the French and the Americans. This seems to be part of a broader spirit of friendship and cooperation.  

The president was emphatic during the G-20 Summit meetings, which took place in London on April 1st, that the time has come for its members to form a strong alliance and work together. He said, “The U.S. can’t operate in a vacuum, politically, militarily, in the global financial markets or in the realm of terrorism.” 

It was a remarkable trip and meeting of the minds even if no country got what they wanted. But during the most difficult period the U.S. has experienced since the Depression, it’s time world leaders join forces. Clearly, everything isn’t going to be smooth sailing and there will be on-going dissention. Hopefully new and increasingly open channels of communication have been created. Obama has set a lot in motion. Now he has to see it through and it’s going to heavy lifting.  

Whether or not it’s superficial, what has so many people talking—and it’s going to be on-going—is the impact Michelle Obama had on her first official visit to Europe as the wife of the President. 

Perhaps there were a few tongues wagging (and who cares?) as to whether or not she should have returned the embrace of Queen Elizabeth. The London tabloids were fast to report it’s simply not done. Perhaps that’s “old” protocol and Michelle (or rather the Queen) broke that barrier.  

Michelle Obama is breaking a lot of barriers and doing the U.S. proud. Her style and her sense of (moderately priced) fashion are being noted. But it’s her down-to-earth honesty that’s making the real impression. She’s willing to say to a group of students in a school in the UK and the US that they are this generation of doers. And just because they’re black or didn’t come from a well-to-do families aren’t reasons not to succeed. Education is a vehicle for creating a better life and not something of which to be ashamed. The First Lady didn’t come from a privileged family—other than having parents who loved her and were supportive. 

Michele Obama, a lawyer, has shelved her profession for now to be the wife of the first black president of the United State plus a stay-at-home mother. Her daughters certainly don’t have her at their beck and call as they did before their father started running for office. But their grandmother has moved to the White House to fill in some of the obligatory gaps. 

Every news medium is filled with long commentaries about the Obama’s trip. Would France’s president Nicholas Sarkozy boycott the G-20 meeting? Why didn’t his wife, the infamous Carla Bruni, accompany him to London? She’s already met the Queen when she curtsied ever so demurely. But did she opt not to attend because she didn’t want to be compared to Michele? Was she setting herself apart from the “Wife’s Club?” 

And gossip being a fact of life, why hasn’t Carla Bruni adopted special causes? For a woman who has consistently loved the spotlight and created it, she’s stepped back and is rarely seen unless she’s accompanying her husband. And when she’s with President Sarkozy, she’s beautifully decked out in elegant haute couture French clothes.  

One thing that’s for certain is the French are “gaga” over Michele Obama. They may not approve of baring her biceps (who cares) but they are overwhelmed by her vitality and openness.  

When Obama was campaigning, he promised change. Ditto for Sarkozy. It’s going to be fascinating to see how things play out in this new environment. Is this the beginning of greater global understanding and cooperation? Has the tide turned? All we can do is hope.

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Posted in Around the World |

London Bound and Living the Life of Luxe!

Written by admin on March 13, 2006 – 4:03 pm -

In spite of being president of a website about France, it would be a lie if I said there weren’t times I have a hankering to hear English being spoken all around me. Not that I necessarily understand the “Queen’s” English but not everyone’s perfect. It’s nice to go to the theater and take a walk in Hyde Park, hit Fortnum and Mason, visit the “old Tate,” the British Museum and wander in and out of the Mews that evoke twinges of nostalgia for Boston.

Last weekend, I climbed aboard the Eurostar between the two cities. Passengers need to remember to bring passports since they’re traveling across two countries’ borders. This feels somewhat strange since the train ride takes only 2 hours and 40 minutes. But as the train races along, you’ll see definite changes in scenery within France and once you cross through the “Chunnel.”   Looking out the window gives an abbreviated bird’s eye view of how different the neighboring countries are when it comes to housing, agriculture and scenery.

The trip will be 20 minutes less when the new UK terminal opens in 2007. To buy a ticket, access:  Rail Europe There are so many options when it comes to tickets (the same as planes) but if you choose to spoil yourself and travel business-premier, you’ll be served a full meal at your seat. You can even specify the menu in advance if you have special dietary needs or preferences. If you’re holding a rail pass, you can travel throughout the EU for a fraction of what it costs were you buying individual tickets.

Arriving in London always comprises an element of culture shock. Climbing into the ever so British traditionally black (or sometimes, covered by ads) cabs, that are being modified to conform to EU emission standards, makes visitors realize that life in London isn’t cheap unless they use public transport. All taxis accept credit cards as if the drivers are accustomed to hearing people gasp at the last click of the meter. And if you don’t immediately adopt the habit of looking in both directions of the road, you could be dead before you arrive at the hotel to check-in.

But one doesn’t pull up to the ever so elegant The Dorchester trailing luggage behind you. Guests have to make the right appearance since this is one of London’s extremely elegant palace hotels. It’s the type of place people gravitate if they’re doing big-bang deals or want to see and be seen.

The rooms (with the exception of the top floor where the bigger-than-life roof deck suites are situated) have been redone with taste and elegance. Some of the public areas are still in the process of being renovated. But the work is slated to be finished by the end of the year.

Renovation is quietly taking place and the Dorchester will have a new super-ritzy spa in addition to a new bar and a tres chic store within the complex. In the meantime, guests luxuriate in the lobby where breakfast is served (the smoked salmon is some of the best ever and a relative bargain at 13 pounds) to high tea and cocktails.  The atrium/lobby (with its comfortable banquette seating) attracts people from all over the world in addition to neighbors who wouldn’t let a day go by, when they’re in Mayfair, without stopping by for a cup of tea or one thing or another. During breakfast, I sat next to a woman who religiously comes to the Dorchester for her breakfast kippers once a week.

The Grill dining room has been renovated. It’s very red and reminscent of King Arthur’s Knights. People may not love the décor but hey do love the standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding…..served from a silver trolley and ever so traditionally British.

The rooms are glorious and large. If your taste runs to elegant chintz, contrasting upholstery and conservative and yet not stuffy décor, you’ll like it here. There are patterns on top of patterns but none are the “in your face – the decorator was here spending billions.” The hotel’s design wreaks tradition and cabinetry that weren’t retrofitted circa yesterday. Rather, it has been lovingly restored from when the property was converted into a hotel 75 years ago.

Enough details about the hotel.  What type of people stay here?  Nigel Bolding, Director of “The World’s Best Hotels” says that people are traveling more and demanding higher levels of service as well as accommodations. This is especially true of business travelers who can’t take the chance things will go wrong when they’re conducting business. The number one request among business travelers is requiring high-speed Internet. My guess would have been gym facilities but no. And it’s not as if you can jog everyday in London.

Bolding explained there’s a new influx of rich clients to go around. Russians and people from other countries have and spend money when they travel. This is certainly true for the Japanese and Americans aren’t bad when it comes to dropping big bucks. It’s not as if many New York City hotels are actually cheap.

Studies have been done showing that people spend a larger proportion of their incomes traveling and the trend is definitely on the rise. 2006 appears to be the year that Italy will win the tourist tally  – but that could change since so many bookings are being done on-line via the Internet and people aren’t planning anywhere as near as far ahead as they used to in the past.

What’s essential is that people are traveling and seeing different parts of the world and it’s becoming easier to go from one country to another without spending days in transit.

Get up and go — and you don’t have to stay in a “palace” hotel even though it’s nice!

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Posted in Around the World |