Welcome to the first Brian’s Travel Spot of the New Year. This (not so) occasional series documents my ever-increasing travel experiences, which this year shows no signs of letting up. I’m currently in Florida, where I’ll be for another week, attending a meeting in Miami, then I’m flying to Phoenix for two weeks, returning home for nine days, then I’m heading back to the States. After that, things calm down a just a little bit, but I still have trips scheduled to Thailand, Chicago and Japan later this year. And that’s just for work.
I briefly visited Miami this time last year on another mad trip, which saw me fly to Phoenix, drive to San Francisco, fly to Chicago, then fly to Boston, via Miami, for a work meeting, before returning home. Flying from (freezing) Chicago to the warmth of Miami, staying for five days, then flying to (freezing) Boston was an interesting experience…
This time I flew to Miami from Manchester via Heathrow with British Airways, arriving a week ahead of my meeting for some sight-seeing. The choice of Manchester, not my favourite airport, was dictated by needing to see my Dad before I went. Thus the scene was set.
You can see how I got on after the gallery.
The choice of British Airways was largely dictated by the return leg from Phoenix, since British Airways is the only airline flying directly there from the UK. That said, I’ve always enjoyed flying with British Airways, so it wasn’t a big deal. I did half-heartedly look around for some alternatives, but when I saw that British Airways flew Airbus A380s (“super jumbos”) to Miami, my decision was made.
I’ve only flown on A380s twice, on my way out to Hong Kong via Dubai with Emirates (ironically also flying from Manchester Airport) I loved the aircraft and ever since I wanted to fly on one again, so I wasn’t going to miss the chance. My flight left Manchester at 9.55 in the morning, arriving at 11.05, leaving me just over three hours to get over to Terminal 3 (the flight from Manchester arrived at Terminal 5) to catch my flight to Miami. In theory I could have caught an earlier flight, but I was worried that it was too short a connection time should anything go wrong, plus the flight to Miami would have been with American Airlines on a Boeing 787, so the A380 won out!
Regular readers will have noticed that I’ve caught the bug for flying business class, which is great if you’ve got someone else paying for it. In this case, someone else was paying for the flight and I did seriously consider it. However, just flying out to Miami in business class was over £2,000 more expensive than the same flight in economy, which represents about 10% of my travel budget.
Since my travel budget starts in January, I was keen not to spend it all early on (especially since I think I might be getting some unscheduled meetings later in the year) I decided against it. I mostly take business class flights when I’m flying overnight and can get some sleep on the plane: since this was a daylight flight and I wouldn’t be sleeping, it really didn’t seem worth it, even with someone else footing the bill! I also looked at flying premium economy, which, surprisingly, didn’t cost very much extra (around £100 when I was booking) but I couldn’t pre-book a bulkhead seat, so instead I decided to spend the extra money on getting a bulk-head seat in economy. Given the choice of slightly extra space in a premium economy seat or loads of extra space in a bulk-head/exit row seat, I go with the exit row seat every time!
Even better, when I came to book my seat, you get free range across all the cabins. For those that don’t know the A380, it is a double-decker, and when I flew to Hong Kong, I was in the lower deck. However, British Airways has economy sections at the back of the plane on both the lower and upper decks. I’m not quite sure why the idea of being seated upstairs appeals to me so much (I always go on the top deck of double-decker buses and trains for example), but naturally I jumped at the chance!
With my flight due to leave at 9.55, I figured I should aim to get to the airport for 8.00, so ordered a taxi from my Dad’s for 7.00, although the taxi firm was arguing I needed to get there three hours before my flight. However, I put my foot down, which is just as well since I had a host of things to do before I left and didn’t get to bed until just after 4 am… A shade under three hours’ sleep was bad enough, but two would have been intolerable.
Normally you can drive to Manchester Airport from my Dad’s in under an hour and I’ve done it before now at that time of the morning. However, the weather was filthy and traffic was bad, so we didn’t arrive until 8.30, at which point I was having flashbacks of my recent flight to Shanghai. I made my way over to bag drop, having already checked in on-line (using the British Airways website since the app wasn’t working on my phone). There were two people ahead of me and, despite having to go to the oversized baggage area to drop off my rucksack, I was in the queue for security less than 10 minutes later.
I’ve had mixed experiences in the past with security at Manchester Airport. On the whole, they have excellent systems in place, and they have the best airport security staff I’ve ever dealt with (in terms of their attitude and professionalism). Unfortunately, they do seem to be over-zealous (or, depending on your point of view, extremely thorough). This time, despite there only being two people ahead of me in the queue, it took over 25 minutes to clear security.
I reckon that practically everyone had at least one of their bags pulled over for a hand search. These days, you have to take so much off/out of your bags that I managed to fill three trays, two of which were pulled over, which is where the fun and games started, since there were at least 10 people ahead of me waiting to have their bags searched. So, there was nothing to do but wait, which was, in the grand scheme of things, fine, just frustrating. In the end, nothing much came of it: I think my stuff looked suspicious, which is why I take so much of it out of my bags in the first place. If it’s still going to be pulled over, then I may as well leave it all in there, although it still gets taken out when the bags get searched, so I lose either way…
Even with this delay and arriving late, I got to the gates at 9.15, which, according to my boarding pass was when my flight was due to board. Naturally, there was no gate shown on the departures board… This is probably my biggest frustration with airports, the constant being told to hurry up, be here by this time, etc, and then, when you do, you find you needn’t have bothered.
I may have mentioned that Manchester is not my favourite airport, particularly when flying down to London for a connecting flight. This is largely because the gate is terrible (something I have complained about before now), effectively a long corridor with no seating, where you just queue up. The gate was shown at 9.20, so we all trooped off, although I hung around in the seats in the main terminal area for a while. By 9.35, the time my boarding pass said the gate was due to close, there was no movement, but I thought I’d better join the end of the (by now) very long queue of people at the gate itself.
Finally, at 9.45, we started to board the plane.
I flew down from Manchester on an Airbus A321. It’s a really short flight: the pilot estimated just 30 minutes in the air, which, once you subtract 10 minutes for take-off and another 10 for landing left me just 10 minutes when I could use my laptop! Despite this, I still went for my customary exit row/aisle seat and I was glad I did, if only to give me room to stretch out. I’m getting very used to sitting in exit/bulkhead rows and I think if I had to sit in a normal economy seat for any length of time, I’d go crazy.
Although we were scheduled to leave at 09:55, it wasn’t until 10:10 that we pushed back and another 10 minutes before we left the ground. As it turned out, the pilot’s 30 minute estimate was wildly optimistic: we were held up by congestion at Heathrow and in the air for 50 minutes, so I managed to get plenty of work done. All-in-all, £15 for the exit row seat was (someone else’s) money well spent.
It was a good job I’d allowed myself plenty of time between flights at Heathrow because it took me almost 20 minutes to get off the plane. The plane was very full and I was about two-thirds of the way back (seat 23D, just behind the wing). Unfortunately, the only overhead luggage space was three rows behind me, so I had to let practically everyone else off the plane before I could go back and get my bags.
I did the transfer from Terminal 5 to Terminal 3 once before when I flew to Chicago over the summer. That was a pretty smooth operation and this was even better. From the plane, it was a short, well-signposted walk to the staging area where transfer buses take you to the other terminals. In my case, there was a bus waiting and less than 15 minutes after leaving the plane, I was getting off the bus at Terminal 3. The only pro-tip I can give here is that if you want to go to the toilet, do it before you catch the bus because once you get off at Terminal 3, you go straight into security. If there’s a long wait and you’re desperate for the toilet, I’m not sure what your options are.
Fortunately for me, while there were more than 10 people ahead of me in the queue I was through security in 10 minutes and, in stark contrast to my experience at Manchester, no-one wanted to inspect my bags. In fact, maybe in one-in-ten people were being taken aside to have their bags hand-searched. I do wonder why this is, since I had exactly the same things with me that aroused suspicion in Manchester. Is it because the searches are (unnecessarily) rigorous in Manchester? Or (worrying) less thorough at Heathrow. Could it simply be that Northerners are noisy? I hope not!
The explanation I’m hoping for is that this was security specifically for transferring passengers. Everyone in that security line had come off a plane and therefore had already been through security at least once. Since you pretty much come off the plane and straight to security, maybe this means that the screening can afford to be a little less rigorous. Who knows?
By now it was approaching midday and, with my flight departing at 14:15 I had plenty of time to kill. The display boards informed me that there wouldn’t even be any gate information until 13:15, so I decided to find somewhere to settle down.
In contrast to Manchester, I really like Terminal 3. It’s improved a lot over the years and now is a nice place to fly form/through. There’s plenty of seating, both in the main areas and at the gate. Having not eaten since I got up, I decided to treat myself to a veggie breakfast at Oriel. This was both very good and, for an airport, reasonably priced.
I’d also not had any coffee up to this point, so went opted to have a cafetiere of coffee, which, I thought, would be hard to get wrong. My mistake. Sadly it was very poor quality, with plenty of Robusta. In short, it was dreadful. I’d definitely eat at Oriel again (it has power points at all the tables, which I appreciate) but next time I’ll be making my own coffee!
In theory, the British Airways app is a wonderful thing. In practice, less so. I’d tried to use it the night before to check-in for my flight, but it kept hanging, so I did it on line, although I was able to use the app to download my boarding passes. Of course, as soon as I turned up at the bag drop at Manchester, the staff printed paper boarding passes…
Again, in theory, the app should give you up-to-date gate information and notifications about boarding. This would be great, meaning I could sit at the restaurant, find out what gate my flight was leaving from and, most importantly, stay there in comfort until the flight was boarding. Except, the app did nothing. I don’t know if I’ve got the settings wrong, but on this showing, the app on my phone served no useful purpose.
Instead I wandered off at 13:30 to find a departures board, discovered my gate was being displayed and wandered off down there, arriving at 13.40, which was just as first, business, etc, started boarding. It turned out that the flight wasn’t very full, so within five minutes, the rest of us were starting to board.
Now, I’ve been very critical of Manchester, so credit where credit is due. The gate at Terminal 3 was spacious and had plenty of seating. The only downside was a lack of power outlets, but that wasn’t an issue since the A380s have at-seat power throughout the plane (it was more of a problem when I flew to Phoenix from Terminal 3 on an old British Airways 747). The boarding process itself was very efficient, with four crew boarding passengers and with two more on hand to sort out any problems.
We were all on-board with the doors shut five minutes before we were due to take off. Having chosen to sit upstairs at the back, I was very happy with my choice. To start with, A380s usually have at least two gangways, one to each deck, so it’s almost like you’re in your own plane upstairs. Even better, it’s slightly narrower upstairs than down, so whereas downstairs in economy the seat configuration is 3-4-3, here it’s 2-4-2. Best of all, we were in our own little section right at the back with just four rows of seats. Had we been full, there would have been 32 of us back there, but there were only 16 all told.
I’d nabbed one of the exit row seats in the set of two at the back (80J) and had so much space, which is what I remember from flying on A380s out to Hong Kong. It also makes a difference only having one person next to you.
It’s not just the legroom though: everything feels bigger on the A380. There’s so much headroom as well, and space to stand up and move around. Even the toilets are bigger, with enough room to stand up straight and move around in (for comparison, the A380 toilet was about the same size as the one in business class when I flew with China Eastern on a Boeing 777). It even has a flat baby changing table, which is ideal for coffee making! The only things that aren’t bigger are the overhead lockers which are about half-height since the ceiling comes in a little bit (but only in our small section at the back).
In fact, the only downside compared to the 787s that I’ve been flying in economy recently is that there’s no monitor on the bulkhead so it’s not so easy to check on my progress when I have the laptop out (basically, I can either have my laptop out or I can have the TV screen up). Other than my usual complaint that I’d like the seat to be a touch wider, I was delighted.
We pushed back at 14:20, did the usual thing of taxiing around for twenty minutes, then took off. The pilot turned the seat-belt signs off after 10 minutes, but almost immediately put them back on as we hit some serious turbulence, when things got rather fun/hairy (depending on your perspective). However, that only lasted a few minutes and after that it was as smooth a flight as any I’ve had.
We are flying west/southwest, with the sun dipping towards the horizon about two hours ahead of us, so effectively we were chasing the sun across the Atlantic, with it always just outpacing us. Admittedly this always happens when flying west during the day, but I find it’s always more dramatic around about sunset (the sun eventually got away from us and slipped below the horizon at about 22:30, London-time, at which point we were over the Bahamas!).
I’ve complained on recent day-time flights about the habit of dimming the cabin lights and pulling down the blinds, so it’s nice not to report that this didn’t happen on the way to Miami. It makes such a difference sitting and typing in daylight. Talking of which, my exit row seat was excellent for working on. Of all the economy exit row seats, the A380 probably has the best table: it’s very stable, ever so slightly bigger than the footprint of my laptop and can slide back and forward so get to the right distance. There’s also at-seat power and while there was only one plug between the two seats (as far as I could tell) my companion didn’t need to use it, so I was able to be plugged in the whole way.
The service and food were both excellent. Although we had the galley directly at the back of our little section, service started up front in premium economy, so it took a while to reach us. Drinks arrived about an hour and a half into the flight, while my vegetarian meal turned up 20 minutes later, although this was a good 40 minutes before everyone else’s food, which pleased me no end. Even though I’d had the all-day breakfast at Terminal 3, I was starving again by that point.
At this point though, I’d been up for almost 12 hours and had less than three hours sleep before that so was starting to regret not booking business class! What I wouldn’t have given to stretch out flat for a few hours and sleep! As it was, I dozed a bit after the meal, but roused myself about five hours into the flight to make some coffee. Since I’ve started using my Travel Press, I’ve found that cabin crew are much happier to give me hot water compared to when I used to turn up with my jug.
I’d pre-weighed the beans, so all I had to do was disappear into the toilet, grind the beans with my Aergrind, transfer the water from the Travel Press into my jug, put the coffee in the Travel Press, then pour the water back in. So simple. I can then take the Travel Press back to my seat and pour when ready. Much less fuss than an Aeropress! After that I got my head down and did some work.
Normally when I fly to America, it’s to more northerly destinations such as Boston or Chicago, or more westerly ones such as Phoenix (interesting fact: it only takes one hour more to fly to Phoenix from the UK than it does to Miami, but it takes five hours to fly from Miami to Phoenix…). On those routes, I typically go past Iceland and/or Greenland and either down the Canadian/US coast for Boston/New York/DC or across Canada for more westerly points.
In contrast, flying to Miami involved heading out over the English Channel then flying west over the Atlantic. And on, over the Atlantic. And on. This was like flying over Russia on the way back from Shanghai, only less interesting. We were fed again about an hour and a half from Miami, just around sunset) and I made one last batch of coffee before getting ready for landing.
The main downside to flying in the small section at the back is the bulkhead seats can be used by families with small children, which was the case with our flight. An extended group of two or three families with three babies/toddlers between them had the middle four seats in the first two rows. I did worry that they would be very noisy, but they were fine. The only other concern was the proximity of the galley, but I can honestly say it never disturbed me.
We were scheduled for a flying time of just under 10 hours and we touched down just after midnight UK time, a few minutes ahead of schedule. It was 19:00 in Miami and it didn’t take us that long to find our gate and disembark. We also got through immigration and customs remarkably quickly, with Miami seeming well set up to handle incoming flights. We were the only (international) flight arriving at that time and there were plenty of immigration officers on duty. The only slight hold up was waiting for our bags, but within an hour and a half of landing, I was on my way to get my hire car, but that’s another story…
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