Welcome to the fourth of my occasional Brian’s Travel Spot series. The first Travel Spot recounted my adventures in the summer of 2015 as I flew to New England, travelled across America by train and spent a week in the Pacific Northwest, an amazing, three-week long adventure. The second Travel Spot saw me back in America this February, flying into New York, before travelling down through Philadelphia to Washington DC, then back up to Boston via New York and Providence. The third was this summer’s one-off, recounting my Porto adventures.
As will all my Travel Spots, they provide a record of my travels, something a little different from posting the actual Coffee Spots I visit (which always takes place after the event). This, my fourth Travel Spot, is possibly my greatest adventure yet. Where I’m going will unfold with successive posts, but for now let’s just say it’s going to take me somewhat less than 80 days. My first stop is Hong Kong, where I’ll be spending a few days acclimatising myself to heat, humidity and, above all, time zone, before my second stop, Shanghai.
As before, I’ll post as I go, splitting the trip into a number of posts. This post covers my flight out to Hong Kong and includes:
- Fun and games at Manchester Airport
- My first time flying with Emirates and on an A380
- Improving airline coffee, one cup at a time
- What I got up to at Dubai Airport
I honestly thought I’d have to wait a long while to surpass last year’s coast-to-coast US train trip, but rather unexpectedly, I was asked to go out to Shanghai for business. Woo hoo! Someone paying for my travel for once! Well, sort of. My contract doesn’t (yet) have a travel budget, but at least I’ll be paid for my time out there, which makes a change.
Since I’m paying for the trip myself, the option of flying business class isn’t really available (well-paid though I am in my day-job, a business-class flight to Shanghai would still cost more than I’ll be paid for my time out there). Instead, I’m flying economy and, so that I don’t arrive at the meeting jet-lagged, I hit on the cunning plan of first flying to Hong Kong, a city I’ve only visited once before, in 2008, but which I loved. I’ll be spending four full days there, then flying on to Shanghai for the meeting.
As I did for my previous trip to the US this year, I decided to visit my Dad in North Wales first, then start my trip from Manchester Airport. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s only slightly more difficult/expensive to get to Manchester Airport from my Dad’s by public transport than it is to get from my home in Guildford to Heathrow. Well, I say start my trip from Manchester airport. You could argue that I started my trip last Friday, when I went from Guildford to North Wales. Now that was an epic journey!
Due to the overnight torrential rain that had brought summer to a very conclusive end, there’d been a landslide at Watford and overhead line problems at Wolverhampton. To use the technically-correct term, the trains were well and truly buggered. Every single train I’d planned to catch was either cancelled or severely delayed and yet, despite this, I actually got to where I was going on time. You see, as much as we like to moan about our railways, they actually do a decent job most of the time. In the case of Friday’s disruption, all ticket restrictions were lifted, so I was free to use whatever train I liked. Sorted! Never before I have missed every single train (and one bus) that I’d planned to catch and yet still go where I was going on time.
In comparison, getting to Manchester Airport on Monday was as straightforward as it comes. One bus and one train later, I was walking into the airport with bags of time to spare. When I flew from Manchester in February, it was my first time at the airport and my experience was pretty positive. Probably just as well, since my thoughts on Manchester Airport this time around were less charitable. Perhaps it made a difference that I was flying from Terminal 1, not 3, and it certainly made a difference that I was on an Airbus A380 (another first for me) to Dubai rather than an A319 shuttle to London.
Let’s be clear. I didn’t enjoy Terminal 1. Security was good, something that Manchester seems to have cracked, although it would have gone a lot more smoothly if the passengers were as efficient as the staff. Seriously, do not take a bottle of water in your hand luggage or your entire toiletries. Or, for that matter, your metal coffee grinder, which always, with no exceptions, gets your bag side-lined for security screening at the X-ray machine…
It was all downhill thereafter. For starters, although Terminal 1 is much closer to the train station than Terminal 3, and you don’t have to walk in the rain to get there, it more than makes up for it with the maze that is duty free which you have to walk through after security before you can get to the gates. There were times when I thought I’d never escape and I’m sure there must be people who’ve missed their flights because they never got through in time…
The next major fail was the free Wifi. Maybe it was just having an off day, but offering an hour’s free Wifi that fundamentally doesn’t work is worse than not offering it all. I connected on the second attempt, at which point the portal proudly told me I had an hour’s free usage, but that was as good as it got. Aside from being notified that I had a couple of tweets (which I couldn’t read), the Wifi was pure frustration, frequently dropping or half-loading websites, but never actually completing them. So much for putting my spare hour to good use. Never mind, I thought, I’ll just use my data allowance on my mobile phone, except, despite having a good mobile phone signal, I couldn’t get any meaningful data through either…
I suspect that the Wifi problem was an issue with the hotspot in the lounge area because, once I got to the gate, I connected immediately (still no mobile data though), at which point the portal proudly told me I had one minute of my free Wifi remaining. Fortunately there was no-one within punching distance…
Then there was the gate itself. When you’re trying to board 500 people onto an A380, you’re going to have a lot of people. Common sense suggests that if you’re going to encourage them all to turn up at one o’clock for boarding, you need a large area to keep them all. Not at Manchester. Just two boarding desks and a slow-moving queue that at one point was probably at least 50m long. I’ve been on flights that took less time than it took to board that plane.
The only bright spot was Giraffe, which was efficient and well-run. I had a lovely veggie breakfast and some free toast because someone had eaten all the avocados. This came with a very good flat white, courtesy of some Union Hand-roasted beans and a barista who clearly knew what he/she was doing (something you can’t always take for granted at Giraffe).
I’ve never flown with Emirates before and I’ve never flown on an Airbus A380 either, but based on my experiences today, you can sign me up for some more! It’s just a shame that Emirates don’t fly direct from the UK to the US, a route which accounts for the bulk of my long-haul flights.
Part of my decision to fly with Emirates was price. Because of the way my trip had turned out, I was flying one way to Hong Kong, and, unlike most scheduled airlines, Emirates doesn’t want to charge you more for a one-way flight than they do for a return. If you think British rail fares are absurdly complicated (and they are), then they have nothing on airlines. I was regularly quoted up to £500 pounds more to fly one way than it would have cost me to fly there and back with the same airline. But not Emirates.
There were cheaper flights, all of which involved flying via somewhere; the only airlines offering to fly me direct where the ones who wanted more to leave me there than bring me back. I could have gone via Beijing with Hainan (a name that will crop up later in these Travel Spots) or via Istanbul with Turkish Airlines. However, there were two reasons for paying a little extra and flying with Emirates. The first was that the flight was split midway in Dubai, meaning I’d be faced with two roughly seven hour flights rather than a 10-12 hour flight and a much shorter one. The second was that I got to fly, for the first time ever, on an Airbus A380.
Boarding aside, my A380 experience was a dream. For those that don’t know the A380 is the so-called super-jumbo, a double-decked giant of the skies. I’ve always found planes rather cramped: at 6’2”, it’s something of a given. However, even in cattle-class (err, I mean economy), the A380 has a sense of space, both at my seat and in general. The high ceilings certainly helped, but there just seemed to be more space all round (although that may be specific to how Emirates configures its A380 fleet). Even the toilets were spacious (that is, I could stand up in one without banging my head!).
Another bonus is at-seat power, although I’m starting to expect that on all (modern) long-haul flights (as an aside, I’m going to be spending 10 hours on an old-school Boeing 747 in about six weeks’ time; now that will be a shock to the system!). Add to that free Wifi, which is another thing airlines could learn from Emirates, and, to be fair, Fly Norwegian, and you’ve got a pretty decent in-flight experience (although potentially less so for those who had to put up with my excited in-flight tweets!).
The free Wifi, by the way, is only for two hours (per device) and includes a relatively small 10Mb data limit. However, for the earth-shattering sum of $1, you can buy a 500Mb allowance that lasts all flight which is close enough to free that I’m not arguing! That said, the free Wifi on the flight from Dubai to Hong Kong was good enough to finishing posting this Travel Spot, so I’m suitably impressed.
As usual, I booked an exit row/bulkhead seat (bulkhead in this case). This is because I really need to the extra legroom (see my previous comments about space) and because I like to work on my laptop during flights (usually writing Coffee Spot posts like this one), something at seat-power as made feasible on long-haul flights. And now, with Wifi, I can publish them too!
It was at this point that I discovered another Emirates bonus: I didn’t have to pay for the privilege. Unlike some other airlines, who charge for these seats, Emirates just let me select it. Since I usually pay anywhere between £35 to £70 for an exit row/bulkhead seat, over the two legs of this flight, not paying extra for my seat could easily have saved me more than the extra I paid to fly with Emirates. Bonus!
What else? The food was good, but not outstanding. Then again, I’ve never had airline food that is. On the other hand, the meals I was served were as good as any I’ve had on board a plane (and that includes the time I was bumped up to Economy Plus on British Airways). The only exception to this was the sticky toffee pudding that I had for dessert on the way to Dubai. This was sublime, easily the best I’ve had on a plane, and far better than many I’ve paid a lot of money for in restaurants.
Regular Travel Spot readers will know that I have single-handedly improved airline coffee over the last couple of years by virtue of making my own. I’ve been taking my Aeropress, grinder and scales on flights with me, then getting the crew to provide a pot of hot water. However, I will admit that it’s a bit of a faff and, after being told off on an overnight flight back from the US for “grinding my beans too loudly” (and no, that’s not a euphemism), I’ve decided to experiment on this trip.
When I visited the World of Coffee in Dublin, I was very kindly given an Espro Travel Press, a cafetiere-like device for making coffee and drinking it on the go. Initially sceptical, I was soon won over to its charms and decided to bring it on this trip. The idea, rather than making the coffee on the plane, was to prepare it at the airport instead, relying on the Travel Press to keep it warm. I already knew it made good coffee, so in theory, everything should be fine. With me, I’d brought some Himalayan coffee beans, my trusty, bright-red feldfarb grinder from Knock (to match the Travel Press), a metal pouring jug and my UpperCup reusable cup (to drink the coffee from).
Step one was to get some water. An important note here: only do this once you’re through security. Getting hot coffee through in your hand luggage is not going to work. As it happened, getting hot water was no problem at all: the waiter at Giraffe didn’t bat an eyelid when I handed him my jug and asked him to fill it up. Perhaps I’m not the trend-setter I thought I was!
Making the coffee at my table in the restaurant drew a few looks, but they must have all been from British people, since no-one asked me what I was doing. It was certainly easier than trying to do it at an airline seat on the somewhat unstable surface of a fold-out table. From past experience I can tell you that this is a tricky operation, particularly when using an Aeropress. While the Travel Press would have been easier on the plane, it was still far preferable to make my coffee at the airport.
So, how did it taste? Well, here’s the thing. The Travel Press claims to keep your coffee warm and good to drink for up to four to six hours. I made my coffee at about one o’clock, as close as I could to boarding. However, the flight didn’t take off until two, then we had the dinner service, etc, etc, so it was actually gone six before I fished the Travel Press out of my bag, so I was pushing the Travel Press to its limits.
The bottom line: it was okay. Perhaps a little cool, perhaps a tad over-extracted, but overall, a decent cup of coffee. However, there is a sting in the tail. I tried the Emirates coffee after dinner (I always do, just to check, figuring I don’t have to drink it if it’s no good). Well this one was good. As good, I’d venture to say, as my own coffee. Which was a surprise, I can tell you!
So, after all that, was it actually a waste of time making my own coffee?
Well, for starters, no, it wasn’t a waste of time. Making my own coffee never is. It certainly didn’t put me off repeating the whole exercise at Dubai Airport, where I took great pleasure in obtaining my hot water from Costa. Bless them, though, I didn’t even buy anything, just walked up and asked if I may have a jug of hot water please.
This one, by the way, was definitely worthwhile. Although the Emirates coffee I had on the flight to from Dubai to Hong Kong wasn’t horrible, it certainly wasn’t up to the standard of the previous flight from Manchester. It was more bitter, with hints of the over-stewed taste I associate with airline coffee. I drank it, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it.
My own coffee, in contrast, was a distinct improvement on my first attempt. Maybe Dubai has better water than Manchester. Maybe the temperature had something to do with it. More likely it was because I’d only left it in the travel Press for four hours this time. Whatever the reason, it was not so over-extracted and produced more of the fruity notes I’d been associating with the Himalayan coffee.
The main downside with the Travel Press is that it’s a lot less straightforward to clean than the Aeropress, particularly if you all you have is a sink where the water only comes on if you hold something in just the right place under the tap…
A few people had raved to me about Dubai Airport, so let’s get one thing clear straight away. It’s just an airport and nothing to get excited about. Admittedly, it’s a modern, well executed airport, which basically means it’s a long shopping mall, with gates off to either side and plenty of seating at the gates (Manchester take note). It also has working free Wifi and the occasional power socket, although it could do with more. Then again, now that at-seat power is so widespread, I’m less concerned about ensuring my battery’s fully charged before I get on a plane.
I didn’t take any photographs of Dubai Airport because, hey, it’s an airport and it’s nothing to get excited about. Having gone through security (and managing not to get pulled aside for once), I sat down to kill the two hours before I needed to board my flight, time which I profitably spent finishing the first part of this post. I then made my coffee and went to board my plane. At which point things went rather wrong…
Dubai Airport, you are a mean and cruel place. When I got off the plane from Manchester, I did what I’d been told: check the departure boards, clear security, go to your gate. And there it was, on the departure board. An Emirates flight, departing at 3.00 AM, destination Hong Kong, Gate B13. Now, in fairness, I didn’t really look that hard, partly because I’m impatient when travelling and partly because the departure board kept changing, cycling through various flights, by the time I’d found it, it had moved on again. Or turned into Arabic (which, given that we were in Dubai, was not unreasonable).
So, I walked up to Gate B13 with about 30 minutes to go and presented my boarding pass.
“This is the wrong flight,” said the nice lady behind the desk. “This is flight 384. You’re on flight 382. That’s in the other terminal, Gate A8.”
Ah, okay. That’s not ideal, especially since the other terminal was a train-ride away. Now, in Emirates/Dubai Airport’s defence, my flight wasn’t actually leaving at 3.00. I’d just got it in my head that it was. In fact, it was leaving at 3.15 (just as well, really). However, in my defence, the flight numbers are very similar, so are the departure times and it’s the same destination. Plus, I wasn’t the only one as I discovered when I found myself in a mad dash across the airport in the company of a fellow-passenger named Peter who’d made the same mistake as me.
In the end we made it in plenty of time, the extra 15 minutes proving all-important. We also found out that two or three people make the same mistake each day. Lesson learnt: check the departure boards, then check again, particularly the flight number. Don’t assume anything. And above all, stop being so bloody impatient!
After all that, the two flights themselves were ridiculously uneventful, which is just how I like them. We left on time, we flew, we landed a little early. Couldn’t ask for more really. Perhaps the most interesting part of the flight was the countries we flew over. I’ve been to Hong Kong once before, but that was flying direct, taking a northerly route over Russia and down through China. This time, I fly over countries that were new to me, such as Turkey and Iran on the way to Dubai, and Pakistan and India on the way to Hong Kong. Nothing dramatic, but nonetheless significant in its own way.
In fact, probably the most dramatic thing that happened on each flight was the take-off. Having never flown on an A380 before, I wasn’t prepared for just how slow these things are. With some jets, take-off involves a dramatic thrust and rapid acceleration down the runway. You can really feel it as it presses you back into your seat.
The A380? Not so much. It has all the acceleration of a heavily-laden elephant walking up a steep hill and stopping to admire the view from time-to-time. When we did actually take off, I was quite surprised and I was sure we weren’t going much above walking pace… However, at least we got there, which was the important thing.
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