Brian’s Travel Spot: Flying from Chicago (Again)

My British Airways Boeing 777-200 on the stand at Chicago O'Hare airport, waiting to take me back to the UK.Welcome to the third and final instalment of the first Travel Spot of 2019, covering my first trip of the year. This started when I flew to Phoenix on the 4th January, getting upgraded to First Class along the way, and ended with my return from Chicago on 1st February, when I had to slum it in business class. Along the way I spent two weeks in the warm, winter sun of Arizona and New Mexico and then flew from Phoenix to Chicago, arriving in time for the polar vortex and the second coldest spell in Chicago’s history.

In all, I spent four days in the suburbs, hanging out with my friends, before catching the commuter train into Chicago proper, which was when it got really, really cold. Perhaps fortunately, I was there for work and, knowing the reputation of Chicago winters, had already booked the hotel in the same building as my office, so I didn’t actually have to go out… The downside was that I only had a single day to explore, but, given the weather, that’s probably just as well. Then, as soon as my meeting was over, I was off to O’Hare for my flight home.

You can see what I made of Chicago after the gallery.

  • Our tale starts on the commuter train from the suburbs into the city...
  • ... giving a first view of the famous Chicago skyline along the way.
  • That's the Hancock Tower, by the way, at the northern end of the Magnificent Mile.
  • It sure looks snowy out there!
  • The train goes all the way to the soaring halls of Union Station.
  • By then, it was time for coffee. Fortunately, the Department of Coffee & Social Affairs...
  • ... is only a short walk from the station, where my friend Amanda & I had our flat whites.
  • Then it was on to the hotel. The last time I was here, I had magnificent river views.
  • This time I was a little further over and my views were somewhat restricted...
  • ... by this apartment block, which was right in front of my room!
  • In fact the best view was out to the east, where I could see the train lines coming in.
  • The room also afforded a great view along the North Branch of the Chicago River.
  • Sunday morning, and the view to the west. What a difference a day makes!
  • The Chicago River was still frozen solid though. However...
  • ... it was only -15C outside, so Amanda and I went exploring, starting with this place.
  • It's the Doughnut Vault, where this wonderful man showed us...
  • ... his secret (well, not that secret) stash of doughnuts!
  • Check out the vintage till!
  • From there we went to my old favourite, Tempo Cafe, for brunch...
  • ... and then across the road to Big Shoulders for more coffee.
  • Suitably fortified, we moved on to the Hanock Tower, which we'd seen from the train.
  • More importantly, we went all the way to the observatory at the top, for some fabulous...
  • ... views of the city. That was looking south, while this is looking north along the coast.
  • The beach, I have to say, was not looking very welcoming!
  • It was so cold that a large chunk of the lake had frozen!
  • There was just enough time to check out La Colombe's Gold Coast branch...
  • ... where Amanda had a pour-over...
  • ... and I had an espresso.
  • Another day (Monday), another sunrise.
  • By now, it had started to warm up and the river was flowing again.
  • I, however, was off to work, although at least that meant getting reaquainted with...
  • ... Infuse Coffee & Tea, the coffee counter in the main lobby.
  • Come Tuesday, it was starting to get really cold again, but at leasy it was sunny.
  • I have to say, Chicago scrubs up pretty well in the sunshine.
  • However, with the plumetting temperatures, came bad news: Infuse would be closed!
  • Wednesday morning and the temperature has dropped to -30C!
  • I have to say that it's very pretty when it's that cold.
  • My favourite view to the west. But what's that going on down on the river?
  • Amazingly, the river was still free-flowing and the surface was swathed in clouds!
  • It was impressive to watch them dancing over the surface of the water.
  • Infuse cut a lonely figure in the lobby though...
  • ... forcing me to resort to making my own coffee...
  • ... and taking it to the office with me (our meeting was the only thing going on that day!).
  • Despite the intense cold, the trains were still running though...
  • ... as was the elevated metro system!
  • The good news was that it was starting to warm up...
  • ... reaching the heady heights of -27C when I had to go out that evening for dinner.
  • A rare selfie of me in the lobby after a ten-minute walk back from the restaurant.
  • Thursday, and Chicago was still looking gorgeous in the cold and the sunshine.
  • I loved the way that the morning sun caught the building on the corner.
  • Meanwhile, here's a view due south down the Chicago River.
  • Compared to the previous day, the river had finally frozen...
  • ... although later in the morning, the ice was beginning to resemble crazy paving.
  • Then it was Friday and my last sunrise.
  • Time to say gooodbye to this (once again) frozen river.
  • The good news is that the staff were back at Infuse, so time for one last flat white...
  • ... and, that afternoon, a cheeky espresso before I went to the airport.
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Chicago has a relatively good, and extensive, public transport system, although the commuter rail service in particular is predominantly there to get people to work (lots of inbound trains in the morning) and home again (plenty of outbound trains in the evening). Despite that, my friend Amanda and I were able to get a train into the city, with the added bonus of arriving at the glorious Union Station.

We popped into the nearby Department of Coffee and Social Affairs for a flat white each and then headed for the hotel, where I had luckily (for the second time on the trip) been upgraded, this time to a corner suite. We had one day (Sunday) to explore and, since it was -15°C, we decided not to go far, starting with the Doughnut Vault, which was only a few minutes from the hotel.

This lovely spot is little more than a short corridor with a counter at one end, although that hides a large, subterranean kitchen, where all the doughnuts are made. These are then brought up to the shop and sold: when they are all gone, the Doughnut Vault closes for the day (although the Doughnut Vault also has a more regular coffee shop on Canal Street).

From there, we went to my old favourite, Tempo Café, for brunch, then headed across the street to Big Shoulders for coffee, before wandering down to the beach, which was freezing! The last time I had been there, in September, people had been playing beach volleyball in their bikinis! We beat a quick retreat to the observation deck of the nearby Hancock Tower, which is well worth it if you like tall buildings and stupendous views, before coming down at sunset for one last coffee at La Colombe’s Gold Coast branch, which was a new one for me.

The rest of the week was spent work, which largely meant going from the hotel, down to the lobby, where I reacquainted myself with the lovely Infuse Coffee & Tea Bar, serving some awesome coffee from Passion House, then going up to the office. The temperatures weren’t too bad at the start of the week, but they plummeted to -30°C on Wednesday as the polar vortex swooped down on Chicago, making it the second coldest temperature on record!

And, of course, guess which night was the team dinner, the one night when I had to go out? Fortunately, it had warmed up by then (to -27°C) and it was only a ten-minute walk from the hotel. Even so, I have never been so cold in my life, despite wearing walking boots, thermal underwear, my winter coat, a huge scarf, two pairs of gloves and a balaclava. It was so cold that not only did the hair in my nostrils freeze, but my breath froze on my glasses, so that they were coated in a thick layer of ice by the time Amanda and I got back to the hotel.

After that, things warmed up again, although there was concern that Friday’s flight might be cancelled, particularly when news came that there had been snow in the UK…

You can see if my flight actually left after the gallery.

  • Back at O'Hare and the British Airways check-in desk (photo from my last trip in 2018).
  • Travelling Club World has its perks. Here I'm jumping the queue for security.
  • The last time I flew from O'Hare, it was First Class and I was going in here.
  • Today, however, I was back to flying Club World & going in here (both photos from 2018).
  • And here we are: the British Airways Terraces lounge in O'Hare, Terminal 5.
  • You are greeted by the check-in desk where they check you're allowed in...
  • ... and then it's down a long corridor to the lounge itself.
  • Along the way, for those of us on the later flight, there's pre-flight dining.
  • You'll find the first part of the lounge at the bottom of the corridor.
  • There are snacks arranged on the curved table in the middle of the room...
  • ... along with drinks at this bar (which is behind you as you enter).
  • I wasn't brave enough to try the coffee: Union Hand-roasted it isn't!
  • There are more drinks and savoury snacks to the right of the coffee machine.
  • There's more to the Terraces Lounge than meets the eye. Off to the left, at the back...
  • ... another long corridor leads to more seating (this is the view from the other end).
  • This section is more secluded. There are a couple of isolated tables to the left...
  • ... while there's this cocktail table at the far end.
  • Beyond the cocktail table is another large seating area, computers on the right...
  • ... and more lounge seating on the left.
  • Finally, to the left of all that is another area of lounge seating. It's so quiet down here...
  • ... which is where I decided to perch myself!
  • This part of the lounge has its own bar with snacks, although there's no food down here.
  • Talking of which, the dining room is now open. Let's go in shall we?
  • There's a seating area off to the left at the end of the corridor...
  • ... and then comes the food, with quite a selection on offer.
  • There's a DIY poke bowl, plus a stir-fry station...
  • ... followed by a selection of help-yourself hot food.
  • And, of course, there's dessert.
  • My dinner.
  • One of the things I like about O'Hare Terminal 5 is that there's a post box airside.
  • Time to board my flight. It had originally been leaving from the spacious Gate 10...
  • ... but instead was going from Gate 16, all the way down here.
  • My plane, a Boeing 777-200, waiting to take me home.
  • There were lots of people milling about at the gate. Mind you, this was the seating.
  • After a short wait, we were called for boarding. Here's the usual queue in the air bridge.
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It was just as well that I was flying on Friday since hundreds of flights had been cancelled on Wednesday and Thursday. However, come Friday, things had warmed up again (back to -10°C) and O’Hare was operating normally. There was more concern about whether the flight would leave from Heathrow after the wintery weather back in the UK, but after a day anxiously scanning flight tracking websites, it was confirmed that the outbound flight was on its way.

Our meeting finished at three o’clock and the flight wasn’t leaving until half past eight. Normally, I would have hung around the city, maybe visiting a coffee shop or two, before jumping on the blue line, part of Chicago’s extensive metro system, to get to the airport. However, given the cold and the considerable volume of luggage I had with me, I decided against it. Since a couple of my colleagues were also on the same flight, we shared a taxi to the airport instead, arriving not long after four o’clock.

The last time I flew from O’Hare, I’d been rather rude about the traffic system, which I believed forced Terminal 5 passengers to drive all the way past Terminals 1, 2 and 3. However, I owe it an apology since there is a short cut that lets you bypass the other terminals (although you feel like you’re leaving the airport and then coming back in again). So, sorry, O’Hare. Your roads are not as barmy as I first thought.

This was the fifth time in less than two years that I’d flown from O’Hare, in that time managing to fly from Terminal 1 (with United), Terminal 3 (with American Airlines) and twice from Terminal 5 with British Airways. The last time I flew back from Chicago, I managed to fly First Class, but this time I was back in Club World. Oh, the hardship. Terminal 5 is easily my favourite terminal to fly out of, even when travelling in economy, but when you have lounge access, it’s a whole different ball game.

We checked in and within 15 minutes were through security and into the lounge. The last time I was here, I didn’t fully explore the lounge, but now, with around four hours to kill, I had a thorough look around, discovering that there’s a lot more to it than I first realised, including a couple of secluded areas at the back that I had no idea about. The only downside, compared to the First Class Lounge, is that there are no windows, but in many ways, I preferred it. It’s the ideal place to spend a few hours, in my case, chatting with my colleagues, writing postcards (did I mention that O’Hare has a mailbox that is airside, inside the terminal? Other airports should take note!) and doing a bit of work on my laptop.

I also had dinner, which is served in a separate dining room. Although not quite at the level of the individually cooked meals with full table service in the private dining room that I enjoyed when I flew first class, it’s still pretty good, with a decent selection of food. Even though I had the option of dinner on the plane, eating first made sense (to me at least) since I wanted to get some sleep on the flight, which is under eight hours long. Eating beforehand meant that I could skip dinner on the plane and get to bed earlier.

As it turned out, I spent longer in the lounge than anticipated since our flight was delayed. The incoming flight had landed on time, but then spent an hour on the tarmac waiting for a gate, which must have been very frustrating for everyone involved. At least I had a nice, comfortable lounge to wait in.

We’d originally been scheduled to board at 19:35, but, in keeping with the hour’s delay, weren’t called for boarding until around 20:30. We’d also shifted gate, from Gate 10, which is opposite the lounge, to Gate 16, about a five minute walk away. Even though I took my time, boarding hadn’t started when I got to the gate and the staff were making the usual announcements for everyone to sit down until their group was called. This is ineffective at the best of times, but at this gate it was completely pointless since I counted at most 30 seats, so I’m not sure where everyone was supposed to be going…

We eventually started boarding at 20:40 and soon I was on the plane. You can see I made of the cabin after the gallery.

  • My British Airways Boeing 777-200 at the gate...
  • ... and here's the Club World cabin towards the front of the plane.
  • I'm not a huge fan of the Club World layout, but the window seats are very cosy.
  • It does leave you feeling like you are in a little world of your own.
  • There's a privacy screen, which, when it's up, helps contribute to that secluded feeling.
  • There's not a lot of space around the seats, but there is plenty of leg room.
  • The only real storage space is this somewhat inaccessible tray under the TV.
  • The fold out table is nice and big though, with more than enough room...
  • ... for my new laptop, particularly since its smaller than the old one.
  • It also has a good travel forwards/backwards, so I can get a good typing position.
  • My seat, configured as a seat...
  • ... and here as a bed. It's just about long enough when you are 6'2.
  • My seat (K12) had an interesting window layout. This one is behind the seat casing...
  • ... and this is way off in front of me. However, immediately to my left...
  • ... where the middle window should be, is a blank bit of fuselage!
My British Airways Boeing 777-200 at the gate...1 ... and here's the Club World cabin towards the front of the plane.2 I'm not a huge fan of the Club World layout, but the window seats are very cosy.3 It does leave you feeling like you are in a little world of your own.4 There's a privacy screen, which, when it's up, helps contribute to that secluded feeling.5 There's not a lot of space around the seats, but there is plenty of leg room.6 The only real storage space is this somewhat inaccessible tray under the TV.7 The fold out table is nice and big though, with more than enough room...8 ... for my new laptop, particularly since its smaller than the old one.9 It also has a good travel forwards/backwards, so I can get a good typing position.10 My seat, configured as a seat...11 ... and here as a bed. It's just about long enough when you are 6'2.12 My seat (K12) had an interesting window layout. This one is behind the seat casing...13 ... and this is way off in front of me. However, immediately to my left...14 ... where the middle window should be, is a blank bit of fuselage!15
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We boarded quickly enough, with everyone on-board and the doors shut by 21:00, not bad going given that the flight was pretty much full. Of the three times I’ve flown with British Airways from Chicago, it’s always been on different plane. The first time was on a Boeing 747, the second time, an Airbus A380 and this time it was on a Boeing 777-200, British Airways running smaller capacity planes in the winter months.

I’m getting very used to flying in Club World on British Airways, particularly on Boeing 777s. This one had a small First Class cabin right at the front, then, after the galley, there’s a fairly small Club World cabin with just six rows and eight seats per row. Beyond that are the World Traveller Plus and World Traveller cabins.

We boarded through the galley between First Class and Club World, so practically everybody had to file though Club World to get on. This, I’m sure, is very good advertising for British Airways, but is a pain when you’re trying to get settled and put things away only to find you can’t get into the aisle because of a long queue!

I’m not a huge fan of British Airways’ Club World layout, with its pairs of seats aligned front-to-back, the only way you can get eight in a row across the plane. There are much better layouts, including Vietnam Airlines, China Eastern and, my most recent experience, American Airlines, all of whom have angled seats with much more room. However, compared to even the best economy seats, Club World has so much room.

The other thing that I’ve learnt is that if you get a window seat, you really do feel like you’re in a world of your own, especially when the privacy divider is up. When you’re trying to get some sleep on a night flight, I really like the sense of privacy/having your own space, which you don’t really get in the angled seats, when you’re always next to an aisle, regardless of which seat you have.

If you want to know more about the cabin layout, try the ever-useful SeatGuru, while you can read more about my thoughts on the Club World cabin from some of my previous flights. A word of warning though. Not all Club World seats are created equal. I’d originally booked K11, a window seat in the second row, but when I boarded, someone had sat there by mistake and seemed quite settled, so when he suggested that I took his seat (K12) instead, I foolishly agreed.

The problem with K12 is that it’s missing a window, right next to the seat, so you have to lean right forward or crane your neck over your left shoulder if you want a view (this is charmingly described by SeatGuru has a having a “misaligned” window: no, it’s not misaligned, it’s missing!). It’s something I’d previously experienced on my flight back from Tokyo last year, but that time it was my own fault for booking the seat. Next time I won’t be so hasty in agreeing a swap! That said, since it was a night flight, the lack of a window was only really an issue come landing, when I wanted to take photos, but more of that later.

You can see how the flight went after the gallery.

  • All set to go in Seat K12 on my 777-200.
  • While the ever-amusing safety video played...
  • ... I filled out my breakast card, the first time I can recall doing this.
  • The pretty lights of Chicago O'Hare, all lit up at night. Soon we were at the end...
  • ... of the runway, where we had to let a couple of planes go by, including this United one.
  • Then it was our turn to swing out onto the runway...
  • ... and off we go!
  • The lights of O'Hare quickly dropped away below us as we climbed...
  • ... and then turned to fly north past the airport. Nice runway!
  • Downtown Chicago's glow to the south contrasts with the more sparsely populated...
  • ... suburbs to the north. Beyond them is the blackness of Lake Michigan.
  • We flew across the northern suburbs and then...
  • ... just five minutes into the flight, we were out over the lake...
  • ... and all was black down below.
  • Our progress so far.
  • Not long to go now. Just under seven hours left!
  • A few minutes later and we approached the Michigan coast on the far side of the lake...
  • ... the lights of the coastal towns clearly visible ahead of us.
  • Land fall! We'd been airborne for just 15 minutes at that point.
  • We made steady progress across Michigan and then, a little later...
  • ... we were over Canada, heading towards the southern shore of Lake Huron...
  • ... which we reached a few minutes later...
  • ... right about when my cheese and port arrived.
  • We carried on just north of Toronto & the northern shore of Lake Ontario, at which point...
  • ... I decided to call it a night. I'll leave you the pilot's view as we headed for Quebec.
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The plane was boarded by 21:00 and we pushed back at 21:05, just half an hour late, which was quite impressive. The pilot came on with the news that due to strong tail winds, we could expect the flight to take around seven hours, which meant that there was a good chance we’d arrive on time. It also made my decision to eat before the flight all the more sensible (plus, by then, I’d have been starving).

We had a ten-minute wait on the tarmac while the safety video played, with the crew handing out menus and something I don’t recall seeing before: breakfast cards. I’ve had the crew come to take a breakfast order before, but this is the first time I remember something official like this. It allowed you to specify ahead of time when you’d like to be woken up and what you’d like for breakfast (or, indeed, if you wanted to skip breakfast). I went for the breakfast on-board option, meaning that I’d be woken up about 75 minutes before landing.

The pilot asked the cabin crew to take their seats for take-off at 21:15, which is when we started taxiing, arriving at the end of the runway about ten minutes later. There was a short wait while a couple of flights went ahead of us, and then we were off.

Due to the prevailing wind, we took off heading west, immediately turning north to loop back around the airport. Those of us on the right-hand side of the plane had some good views of the runways, with the lights of the incoming aircraft dotted around the sky.

Five minutes later we’d left Chicago behind and were over Lake Michigan and ten minutes after that, we were across the other side and flying over Michigan itself. My aim was to get to bed fairly early, although I decided to have the cheese plate and some port first. However, it took the cabin crew a little while to take the orders and another 15 minutes for my cheese and port to arrive.

It was, however, very good, coming with a bonus warm bread roll and side salad, which set me off nicely. By the time I was finished and settled for bed though, there was a little over five hours flying time left. I faced the usual British Airways dilemma about where to put my things, particularly my glasses, since there really is no storage space, other than the tray under the TV. However, once you’ve converted the seat to a bad, it’s actually under the bed part, so is completely inaccessible. Not a great design.

I had thought of changing into my pyjamas, which I’ve done on some previous night flights, but the lights were still up and dinner service was in full swing. Feeling a little self-conscious about parading through a well-lit plane in my pyjamas, I decided to sleep in my clothes and finally settled down at 23:00.

You can see how the rest of the flight went after the gallery.

  • I awoke of my own accord at about 3am (9am local time) somewhere over the Atlantic.
  • Outside it is all pretty clouds, but that's about it.
  • Breakfast arrived soon after that...
  • ... just as the west coast of Ireland came into view.
  • Breakfast was done and dusted, the tray cleared away...
  • ... just as we crossed the coast.
  • In less than 15 minutes, the east coast of Ireland comes into view...
  • ... and then we're out over the Irish Sea...
  • ... and, less than 10 minutes later, we've crossed the Welsh coast.
  • I'm guessing that's the Gower Peninsular looking gorgeous down there.
  • The Welsh valleys are looking particularly snowy.
  • And then, before you know it, we've crossed the Severn Estuary, heading for Bristol...
  • ... and the Wiltshire countryside beyond.
  • 15 minutes later, and I'm not quite sure where we are, but it's not snowy any more.
  • Five minutes after that (10:25) and we're starting to turn, so we must be over London.
  • And then, suddenly, this comes into view! Hello Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs.
  • What a glorious view!
  • It's so clear too!
  • We follow the Thames, sliding south of Southwark Park...
  • Here comes Tower Bridge and the City of London, with the Shard on the left.
  • There's just a few wisps of cloud to block the view...
  • ... but otherwise it's glorious as we head south of London Bridge station and the Shard.
  • Next is the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament, with the Oval directly below.
  • Across the river: St James's/Green Park (centre), Hyde Park (left) & Regent's Park (right).
  • Down below is all that is left of Battersea Power Station...
  • ... while off in the distance is Hyde Park...
  • ... along with the Royal Albert Hall and the Kensington Museums.
  • We're flying close to the river now...
  • ... passing by Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea Football Club.
  • Then we're out over West London and I'm less sure of my landmarks...
  • ... although I'm pretty sure that's Hammersmith Bridge.
  • ... while way off in the distance, that's Wembly Arch for sure. Let me just zoom in...
  • ... and, yes, there it is!
  • Back over the Thames we go and over...
  • ... Kew Gardens, with Syon House at the bottom on the left, just across the river.
  • We're getting close to Heathrow now. There's a train down there...
  • ... and there's a tube train on the Piccadilly Line.
  • It was just five minutes ago that we were over Canary Wharf!
  • Look! That's our shadow! I've never seen that before!
  • It's pretty sharp too.
  • Of course, it gets bigger (comparitively) as we get closer to the ground.
  • We're now very close to the eastern edge of the airport.
  • You can clearly see the landing gear.
  • The airport comes into view...
  • ... and our shadow comes to greet us.
  • Almost there...
  • And that's it! We're on the ground.
  • Now to play the taxi game with all the other aircraft...
  • ... from all over the world.
  • Soon Terminal 5 comes into view...
  • ... with its three blocks of gates.
  • We're not going to C-block, obviously...
  • ... but as we pass, we turn in...
  • ... sneaking past this Boeing 747...
  • .. and then on to our gate in B-block, which is where I'll leave you.
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I actually slept quite well, waking up of own accord at three o’clock (nine o’clock UK time), which was just before breakfast. This meant that I’d had about four hours sleep. While that doesn’t seem much, for transatlantic flights, I find that’s enough to stave off jetlag and, as a result, I didn’t have any problems after this trip, which is a major bonus.

Breakfast arrived shortly thereafter, a vegetable panini, croissant and some fruit, along with coffee from Union Hand-roasted, which, as my first cup in the morning, was acceptable. Breakfast was served over the Atlantic and, by the time we’d crossed the west coast of Ireland at 09:30 (UK time), everything had been cleared away and we were preparing for landing.

Our approach took us across South Wales and over Bristol, flying pretty much due west, but slightly south of the M4. Down below the landscape was covered with snow. Since we’d had strong tail winds all the way, it was no surprise that we were going to be landing from the east (ie into the wind), which meant out approach took us across south London, with a turn around the docklands. Then we came in along the Thames with some magnificent views (check out the gallery).

The pilot asked the cabin crew to take their seats for landing and, just over ten minutes later, we touched down on the south runway at 10:30. There was a short taxi to Terminal 5 and a short wait for our gate. By 10:45 everyone was trouping off the plane. We arrived at the B-block and even considering the need to get the transit to the A-block, we were through security in double-quick time, arriving in the baggage hall at 11:00, one of smoothest arrivals at Heathrow.


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