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.
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 which I visited on my return in May).
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.
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 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.
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.
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 jet lag 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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