Welcome to the first Travel Spot of the new year, on my first trip of 2020, which means I’m starting the year much as I started 2019, when I flew to Phoenix on the 4th January, managing to get upgraded along the way from Club World to First Class. That was also on the first Friday of the year (I flew yesterday).
This time, I flew from Heathrow to San Jose, California, where I’ll be spending a week (for work). Then I’ll back be in Phoenix the following week (work again), before spending a week travelling around Arizona, enjoying the winter sun. Finally, I’m flying to Portland (Maine) to see Amanda for the weekend, which will make an interest contrast (similar to last year, when I flew from Phoenix to Chicago). From there, it’s on to Boston to fly home at the end of January.
As usual, I’m flying with British Airways to and from the US, while, due to time constraints, I’m doing the internal travel by plane as well, flying from San Francisco to Phoenix with American and from Phoenix to Portland with Delta. I’d have loved to have done either (or both) of those legs by train, but it wasn’t feasible.
You can read more about the flight after the gallery.
I’ve spent the last three years doing five or six long-haul flights, increasingly in business class (Club World on British Airways) which I’m fortunately enough to be able to cover using my generous travel budget from work. While the business class flights are a real boon when flying overnight (for medical reasons, I can’t safely sleep sitting upright in a standard airline seat), during daytime flights, like those from the UK to America, I really don’t need to fly business class since I don’t sleep on the flight.
One option is to book the outbound flight in economy, then book the return (which is the overnight flight) in business class. I’ve done a couple of times, but British Airways don’t make this easy when flying via multiple cities (which is the reality of most of my trips to America these days). However, I’ve discovered a new strategy for this year’s travel.
Last year, I flew to Boston, to see Amanda, flying there and back with Virgin Atlantic, taking a daytime flight both ways. This is possible since, on the way back from Boston, it’s a relatively short flight (admittedly, it’s still six hours, but since I regularly do 12 hours flights to/from Japan and China, it’s a short flight for me!). This means that airlines can have a flight leave Boston first thing in the morning and, accounting for the five-hour time difference, arrive in London in the evening.
This is great if you are flying from Boston, but what I realised is that I could also use this flight for any of my North American trips, flying out in premium economy, then flying (or possibly taking the train) from wherever my meeting is to Boston, then catching the daytime flight (again in premium economy) back to London. Even accounting for the cost of the extra internal flight, this still works out at half the cost of the equivalent there-and-back flights in business class.
So that’s what I decided to do: fly out to San Jose in premium economy (World Traveller Plus in British Airways parlance), do my meetings, fly from Phoenix to Boston, then fly back from Boston, again in premium economy. Since this was the first trip of the year, I was planning to use it as a test case to see how I got on before booking the remainder of my (US) flights this year.
Unfortunately, British Airways rather spoilt my experiment by upgrading me on the outward leg from World Traveller Plus to Club World! So, just as I did in 2019, I started my year with an unexpected upgrade. Admittedly, not quite as plush as getting upgraded to First Class, but I’m not complaining!
However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with my experience at the airport, which you can read about after the gallery.
You would think, given all the travel that I do, that I’d be fairly relaxed about it. On many levels, I am, but I am still a terrible sleeper the night before a flight, particularly at the start of a trip. Case in point was this trip. Despite setting aside the whole day before to prepare for the trip, I was still up until 3am finishing things off. Even when I did get to bed, I wouldn’t describe what I did as sleeping. It was more akin to a series of short naps before I woke up at 8am the morning of the flight to do my final packing.
The good thing is that I was flying from Heathrow Terminal 5, which, when the roads are clear, is less than half an hour’s drive from my house. My taxi arrived at 10:30, although I still wasn’t ready, frantically stuffing the last few things in my rucksack. We eventually left at 10:40, but after that it was all plain sailing. It turns out that the morning of the first Friday of the year is a quiet time on the M25, because by 11:10, I was standing at the check-in desk at Terminal 5, being informed that I’d been upgraded to Club World.
Ten minutes later, I was through security and heading for the lounge (these days I fly so much that I am a British Airways Gold member, so get access to the Fast Track lanes at security and First Class lounge even when flying in economy). This was my fourth time in the First Class lounge at Terminal 5, having previously used the Club World North lounge. Initially I wasn’t that impressed, but, I have to say, it grows on me each time I use it.
The First Class lounge occupies the southern end of Terminal 5, running the full width of the building. In size, it feels similar to the Club World North lounge, but is broken up into smaller spaces, which I like. The front of the lounge is given over to an array of different seating areas, some very lounge-like, with sofas, and others much more business-like. There are also several bars and, in what are my favourite features, two, long thin areas which run back into the building, one either side of the entrance.
The one on the left, as you enter, is the dining area, where there’s a selection of buffet food, with a more varied offering than in Club World. There’s also a wider range of seating, plus there are different menus throughout the day (breakfast, lunch and dinner) where you can have a small range of items made to order from the kitchen.
On the right is the coffee lounge, with three self-serve coffee machines (in fairness, the dining area also has coffee machines) with some really secluded seating right at the back, including a business section, which is often where you’ll find me. This is much larger and much quieter than its equivalent in Club World North and, thankfully, not co-located with the children’s play area!
On previous occasions, I’ve used the spa for a massage, but this time I wasn’t there for long, just long enough for a Union Hand-roasted espresso, and a few sandwiches to tide me over to lunch on the plane. My flight was due to leave at 13:00, with boarding scheduled for 12:00, but as noon came and went, there departure board wasn’t even showing the gate, so I stayed put. Finally, at 12:15, the gate was displayed (B37), so I decided to make my way over there.
You can see how I got on after the gallery.
If you don’t know Terminal 5, it has three blocks of gates, A, B and C. A block is the main one, while B and C, which is where the majority of long-haul flights depart from, are satellite blocks. These are connected to A block by a short underground train, so it always takes a bit longer to get to those gates. Although when I left the lounge, my gate wasn’t shown as open, I didn’t want to be hurrying along at the last minute. As it was, I arrived at 12:30 to find the gate packed with passengers, all queuing, waiting for the gate to open (in fairness to British Airways, the display was pretty accurate, with the flight not shown as boarding).
Normally, I’d just take a seat, wait for the queues to die down, and board the plane last, but since I’ve got Gold status, I also get priority boarding, so I decided to make full use of it and join the queue of about 10 people in the priority lane. After a wait of about 15 minutes, boarding finally started and we were quickly onto the plane. Judging by the amount of people queuing at the gate, plus the numbers making their way past us to get to the back of plane, the flight was pretty full, and took over 20 minutes to board.
By now it was 13:10, ten minutes after our scheduled departure time, but we ended up at the gate for another 20 minutes while some stray bags were located and loaded on. Finally, the cargo hold was closed and we pushed back at 13:30.
We spent the usual five minutes on the tarmac while we watched the safety video, which is just as funny as ever. We then set off on our long taxi, which saw us going just about as far as we could. We left via the southern end of B block and we were taking off on the northern runway, so first we had to cut across from the southern end, which took about five minutes. Just to make it worse, we were taking off to the west, so then had to taxi to the far end of the runway, which took us about 10 minutes. The good news was that there was no queue, with aircraft taking off regularly as we trundled along next to the runway (I counted six). When it came to our turn, we simply turned 180° onto the end of the runway and off we went, leaving the ground at 13:50.
You can see what I made of my upgrade to Club World after the gallery.
Normally when I fly Club World, I book early and get one of my favourite seats. However, since I was upgraded, I took what I was given, which, in this case, was Seat 10B. My plane was a standard British Airways 787-900, which has a tiny first-class cabin at the front, followed by an equally tiny Club World cabin of just two rows forward of the galley, which is where I prefer to be. After the galley comes a larger Club World section, although with just four rows, it’s still pretty small. Then it’s World Traveller Plus (where I was supposed to be) and, after that, regular economy.
10B is right at the front of the second Club World cabin, on the left-hand side by the aisle. As seats go, it’s pretty good (that said, other than the middle seats in the centre of each row, none of the Club World seats are anything to complain about). Although it doesn’t have a window, being an aisle seat means access is easy, plus it has the benefit of being a bulkhead seat, so you get a little extra legroom if you turn it into a bed, plus you don’t have anyone climbing over you as they get in/out from the window seat.
I’d just finishing settling in, had put all my bags away and taken all my photographs, when one of the cabin crew approached me. She explained that there was a lady travelling with a baby and would I mind swapping seats with her since, as a bulkhead seat, this one had a basinet where the baby’s cot could go? At this point, having been upgraded, I really felt that I had no choice but to say yes; I’d have probably said yes even if the cabin crew had suggested putting me back in World Traveller Plus, but it turns out that the seat I was moving to was 13A. Oh, the hardship.
13A is the window seat at the rear of the cabin which, as regular readers will have already worked out, is my favourite seat in Club World (along with its twin on the other side). Well, I say favourite, but I marginally prefer the back row in the front Club World cabin, not least because it is forward of the wing, so the views are better. However, there’s really very little to choose between the two and I wasn’t about to complain.
So, I picked up all my stuff and moved myself four rows down to the back of the plane, not quite believing my luck. Not only had I been upgraded, but I’d ended up in the (for me) second best seat on the plane!
Since I’ve written quite extensively about British Airways Club World seats on several occasions, I won’t say any more here, but if you want to know why I like the bulkhead window seats so much, check out what I wrote when I flew back from Japan last year.
You can see how the flight went after the gallery.
We took off at 13:50, heading west, which meant that we were straight into our normal route, flying just north of the M4, crossing the Severn north of Bristol, and heading then across South Wales. Here we turned slightly north to take a more west by northwest course out over the Irish Sea, crossing the Welsh coast at 14:20. Less than 10 minutes later, we were back over land again, just south of Dublin. 20 minutes after that, at 14:50, we left the northwest tip of County Mayo behind us and headed out over the Atlantic.
Not long after that, at 15:00, lunch was served, the customary bowl of nuts along with the welcome drink having arrived somewhere over South Wales. I had a vegetarian meal ordered, but even though the flight was full (I didn’t see any empty seats in Club World) the cabin crew were happy for me to order from the main menu. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been enamoured with having soup on flights, so I swapped my starter for the artichoke and hazelnut soup, which was excellent. It came with a warm bread roll, a cracker and cheese, and a celery side-salad (which I think was part of my original starter).
None of the main courses on the menu jumped out at me, so I stayed with the main course from my vegetarian meal, a pasta dish with spinach in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. I’ve not had much luck with pasta dishes on long-haul flights, but this too was excellent, the pasta really well cooked, while the sauce was exceedingly tasty.
I followed that with the sticky toffee and date pudding, served with vanilla crème anglaise, another choice from the main menu. I’m a sucker for a good sticky toffee and date pudding and, I’m pleased to say, this was a pretty good one. If I’m being hyper-critical, it could have been a touch stickier, but otherwise it was an excellent end to an excellent meal, which was all done with by 16:00.
Well, I say end, but of course I had to have the cheeseboard and port to round things off, which was very fine. It was at this point, that I decided to take a nap.
You can see how that went after the gallery.
I hadn’t originally planned to sleep on the flight, another reason why I was happy booking the flight in World Traveller Plus. My strategy for avoiding jet lag, which worked really well on all three of my long-haul flights to America last year, was to stay awake through the flight, then go to bed at a sensible time in the US, thus getting myself onto US time as quickly as possible. However, given my terrible night’s sleep the night before, I was no longer sure that this was going to work.
My flight was due to land in San Jose at four o’clock local time, which would be midnight according to my body clock. The earliest I would realistically want to go to bed is ten o’clock, at which point I wold have been up for 22 hours straight on less than five hours very poor sleep. Somehow, I didn’t think that was going to work.
So, given that I had a Club World seat at my disposal, I decided to make full use of it and take a nap after lunch. This is where my original seat would have come in handy, since, as an aisle seat, it’s much easier to make up the bed, and it’s far easier to get into and out of. In contrast, once you’ve made a window seat into a bed, it literally takes up all the space between the aisle seat and the fuselage, so the only place to stand is right at the foot of the bed, making it really tricky to clamber in and out. On the plus side, at least I had the bulkhead seat, so didn’t have to worry about falling over the person next to me!
I got to bed just before five o’clock and slept reasonably well, waking up at 19:30, although in reality, I’d probably not slept any better than I had the night before. However, past experience has taught me that a (relatively) short nap like that in the middle of the day can make all the difference, so we shall see.
You can read about the rest of the flight after the gallery.
I’d gone to sleep midway across the Atlantic, waking just as we crossed over northern Canada, having flown over the southern tip of Greenland, the most northerly point of the flight. Outside the sun was on the verge of setting, but, just as it had when I flew to Phoenix this time last year, once we starting flying south, the sun actually rose a little above the horizon. However, since we were flying slightly earlier in the day (by about an hour) we didn’t get the sunset I’d experienced last year.
Not long after I woke up, the cabin crew came through with ice cream and I also had a cup of Union Hand-roasted coffee to perk me up, served on a tray, with a packet of biscuits on the side. I worked for a bit, then, just as we crossed over from Hudson Bay to mainland Canada, north of Port Nelson, I took my customary walk along the length of the plane, marvelling, as I always do, at how everyone is crammed in at the back. World Traveller Plus didn’t look too bad in comparison, although to successfully work on my laptop, I would have needed a bulkhead seat.
By 22:20, we were approaching the US border in bright daylight, having long left our near sunset/sunrise behind us. Down below, Canada was being remarkably coy, hiding beneath successive banks of clouds. The beneficial effects on my nap were also starting to wear off, but with the local time at 14:20 and the end of the flight just about 2½ hours away (we were predicted to land about 45 minutes late due to our delayed departure), I decided to power through.
I got plenty more work done and had several walks. A light meal (a late dinner/lunch, depending on which time zone you were aiming for) was served at 23:05 (15:05 San Jose time) as we passed over the Idaho and the Rockies, but it was still too cloudy to see anything. I had the artichoke starter, but I swapped my vegetarian main course for seared scallops, which were excellent. There was also a very nice blueberry cheesecake for dessert, which I paired with a final cup of coffee.
You can see how the last bit of the flight went after the gallery.
We flew down across Idaho and Nevada, then headed across northern California, where the call for landing was made as we passed over the Sierra Nevada northwest of Reno. By now it was midnight, when we should have been landing, but I decided it was far easier to think of it as 16:00 in the afternoon, particularly since it was beautifully sunny outside. Best of all, the clouds finally broke and I got some decent views.
The pilot announced 20 minutes to landing at 16:25, just as we turned to head due south, our route taking us directly over San Francisco to flying pretty much due south over the city, then along the peninsula. Sadly, although the clouds had broken, the windows had iced over and so views were hard to come by. We flew southeast past San Jose, following a valley, flying roughly level with the tops of the hills.
The pilot announced seats for landing at 16:35 and we finally turned at Morgan Hill, flying north along the route of US101 for our final approach to San Jose, touching down at 16:50. San Jose is a fairly small airport and we got to the gate, in double-quick time, but were then held on the plane for 15 minutes. The official explanation was that the terminal had a limited capacity and was full due to two flights arriving just before us!
When we did get off the plane, we ran into large queues at immigration, where San Jose doesn’t have the automated gates that I’m used to. Instead, everyone had to see an immigration official (which is how it used to be everywhere up until a few years ago). Unfortunately, there were only four officials on, two for US citizens and two for visitors. Fortunately for me, there were far more US citizens than visitors, so I got through fairly quickly.
By 17:35 I was in the baggage hall, where my bags were waiting for me and by 17:40 I was through customs. Even here the delay worked in my favour since it meant that my friend Richard was there to pick me up, whereas if we’d been on time, I would have had to wait for him to leave work!
Don’t forget to check out the next instalment of the Travel Spot, which covers my flight down to Phoenix.
PS If anyone is interested, the nap seemed to work. I’m writing this on Saturday night and, thankfully, seem to have avoided any serious jet lag.
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