Welcome to the second Travel Spot of 2020, which follows hot on the heels of the first. So far this year I’ve flown business class (London to San Jose), premium economy (my return from Boston) and now I’ve made it all the way to the back of the plane, flying economy on my return to Boston from London earlier this week.
Mind you, this trip is somewhat different than the one I’d originally planned. It was supposed to be a two-week there-and-back trip to Portland to see Amanda. However, that was before coronavirus/COVID-19 caused the cancellation of March’s work trip to Shanghai, the meetings being switched to Chicago instead. As a result, rather than fly back to the UK next weekend, I’m heading down to Atlanta, then flying to Chicago, not returning until the end of March, when once again I’ll be flying back from Boston on the daytime flight.
As usual, I’m flying with British Airways to/from the US. I’m also flying to/from Chicago (with American Airlines). However, Amanda and I will be taking the train down to Atlanta which should be fun! Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself: this Travel Spot is all about flying economy to Boston.
As is usual with these posts, since it’s quite long, I’ve split it into the following sections:
- Planning and Re-planning my Trip
- RailAir Coach to Heathrow
- First Class Lounge
- World Traveller on a Boeing 777-200
- The Flight
- Boston and the Bus to Portland
As I mentioned earlier, this was supposed to be a simple there-and-back flight to visit Amanda in Portland, flying to/from Boston and then taking the coach up to Portland. Since I was paying for it myself, I’d booked both legs in World Traveller (otherwise known as economy), flying out on Monday, 24th February and returning two weeks later on the daytime flight from Boston, which is where it was going to get interesting.
I’d originally planned to fly straight on from London to Shanghai for work, landing at Heathrow in the early evening and leaving a few hours later for China. That would have got me to China almost a week ahead of my meeting, the idea being to give myself time to get over the jet lag which completely crushed me when I went out to China this time last year.
However, I can’t say I was looking forward to taking a seven-hour flight from Boston to London, followed immediately by a 14-hour flight to Shanghai, so when the meetings were moved to Chicago I was somewhat relieved. I managed to move my return flight from Boston to the end of March, re-planned the rest of the trip and actually saved work a bit of money in the process, so it was a win all round.
That still left the flight from London to Boston though, which I took with Amanda, who had come over to the UK to visit the week before. First step, as ever, was to get to the airport.
We decided to catch the RailAir coach from Guildford station which I used for the first time last year. Our flight wasn’t due to leave until 16:40, and with the coaches running every hour, we caught the 14:00. Since there’s nowhere really convenient to wait (the coach leaves from outside the station) and it was pouring with rain, I was rather relieved to find the coach was already there when we arrived at 13:45, so we got straight on.
While work has spoilt me by letting me take taxis from door-to-door, I really am a fan of the RailAir coach. It’s cheap (just £9 if you book on-line) and the seats are very comfortable, with plenty of legroom. Amanda and I nabbed the table at the front, just behind the driver, although we pretty much had the coach to ourselves (I think that there eight passengers in all).
Although the schedule says an hour, we were at Terminal 5 by 14:40 and had dropped our bags off by 14:50. This was including a five-minute delay when Amanda’s bag-drop machine turned itself off midway through the process (the previous passenger’s bag had got stuck, but rather than turning itself off at that point, it decided to process Amanda’s bag, give her a baggage tag and then close down).
I’ve had Gold Status with British Airways for a little while now and even though we were flying economy, it has its perks. This includes allowing me to take an extra bag, letting me select exit row seats for a free and allowing me to extend those benefits to one guest (ie Amanda) who is travelling with me on the same flight. It also lets me use the First Class lounge, which I’ve enjoyed on a few occasions now.
However, what I hadn’t made use of, until this trip, was the lounge’s special entrance. I’d found this the first time I’d used the lounge, but hadn’t worked out how to get in by that route. The next time I flew, I just followed my tried and trusted route through Fast Track at security, but since we had some time, I decided to explore. Based on where the lounge was, the entrance had to be at the far (southern) end of the departures hall at Terminal 5, so down we went and there it was!
I wasn’t sure if I could use it, fearing it might be reserved for those flying First Class, but no, Gold Status gets you (and your guest) in, so in we went. Originally, I’d thought it was just a security gate which led directly into the back of the lounge, but no, it’s a whole check-in and bag drop area as well, so we needn’t have used the automated bag drop after all! Oh well, I’ll know for next time!
One of the real perks of flying business class is the Fast Track line through security at various airports, but this takes it one better, an experience akin to Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class lane at Terminal 3. We had two security lines at our disposal with no wait at either. Even in Fast Track, I’m always aware of the people behind me, waiting their turn, but here we were able to leisurely take things out of our bags and put them on the trays. Naturally, we both got our bags hauled to one side (mine for my Aergrind, which I sometimes take out, but not this time, and Amanda for her makeup bag!).
Despite these delays, we were through security in 10 minutes and from there went straight into the back of the lounge! Talk about being pampered! You can read more about the lounge from my previous visits: on this occasion, we had about an hour, so we made some Union hand-roasted coffee, grabbed a light lunch and rounded things off with some cheese and port.
By then it was just gone 16:00, so we made a move over to the B Gate area, where our flight was departing from B35. When we set off, the gate was shown as open, but by the time we got to the underground transit, it was showing as boarding. We arrived at the gate at 16:10 and for once the information was accurate: not only was the flight boarding, boarding was almost complete! We went straight on, although Amanda once again showed her talent for being special by getting pulled aside for a random security check at the gate. By 16:20, we were at our seats and ready to go.
As regular readers will know, I’ve spent the last few years mostly flying business class. However, for the majority of the time I’ve been flying, I’ve been in the back of the plane, so this was all very familiar to me. Once again, I was on a Boeing 777-200, with this particular aircraft having come into service in 1998, making it one of the first 777-200s in the British Airways fleet.
It had a relatively small World Traveller cabin at the back with 14 rows of seats, in a 3-3-3 format. We’d managed to secure our favoured exit row seats (26H and J) which are right at the front of the World Traveller cabin on the right-hand side. 26H is the aisle seat, while Amanda got the short straw with the middle seat (26J). We were hoping that the window seat would be empty, so we could spread out, but no such luck. The flight was pretty much full, so almost all the seats were taken, including that one. On the plus side, we weren’t missing much in terms of views: the seat was right next to the emergency exit and didn’t have a window!
The good news is that we had plenty of legroom, although the downside was that we had nowhere to put our stuff, which is the usual trade-off when sitting in the exit rows. On the plus side, having someone that you know in the seat next to you makes a huge difference. Normally I have to put all my stuff on the floor before I can get out of my seat: here I could just pass things to Amanda to keep hold of (and vice versa).
Although the plane was fairly old, it had obviously been refitted very recently. It’s interesting to compare it to my seat in World Traveller Plus when I flew back from Boston at the end of last month, which was also on a Boeing 777-200. While that plane wasn’t quite as old as this one (19 years as opposed to 22), I suspect that it plane hadn’t had the latest refit since my World Traveller seat on this flight was a significant upgrade, even though we were in a supposedly inferior cabin.
For example, our seats had power (a USB outlet in the arm of the chair and a multi-national power socket under each seat). In comparison, on my last flight, my seat had a bespoke power outlet that I couldn’t use. This seat also had a decent-sized (for economy) widescreen monitor, which was much larger than the equivalent one in the World Traveller Plus. Finally, the fold-out table, while smaller, didn’t sag in the middle and had a good range of travel forwards and backwards, making it both easier to use and allowed me to get in and out of my seat without having to put it away.
The main downsides to the seat (it was slightly narrower and didn’t recline as much) aren’t particularly important considerations for me, so overall, I preferred this seat to the one in World Traveller Plus. As always, not all cabins are created equal, with so much depending on the type of plane and, in this instance, when it was last refitted!
Even though the flight was very full, we boarded quickly and by 16:30, boarding was compete, allowing us to push back exactly on schedule at 16:40. We spent the customary five minutes on the tarmac for the safety video (which had Amanda laughing out loud) and then we set off to taxi to the far end of the airport so that we could take off to the west. The pilot announced seats for takeoff at 16:50 and a few minutes later we turned onto the runway and took off.
Although being in the back of the plane felt quite familiar, I’ve become so used to flying in a window seat that not being able to look out felt really weird. I also find that when I’m flying on my own, I’m constantly watching the moving map and making notes. Here I was chatting with Amanda a lot more and much less aware of where we were in the flight.
The meal service started fairly soon after we’d taken off, but even so I’m really glad that we got something in the lounge since by the time to meal arrived, we’d already been in the air for 1½ hours. The service started with drinks and pretzels, although I was surprised me that the drinks trolley started off in World Traveller Plus, and then came back to us (I thought it had its own trolley service).
Our drinks arrived at 17:35, then, after 40 minutes, the meals came around. I wanted to be sure of getting a vegetarian meal, so I’d pre-ordered one as did Amanda, which was unexpected, although it might have been because our bookings were linked. For once we got a genuinely vegetarian meal rather than a vegan one, which was the cauliflower mac and cheese (which was the vegetarian choice from the main menu).
As usual, because we’d pre-ordered, our meals came out just before the main meal service and, because the cabin crew started in World Traveller Plus and worked back, just as they had done with the drinks, we got our food about 15 minutes about before those around us. As well as the mac and cheese, we had a salad starter and a milk chocolate and sea salt mousse.
Normally, I’m not a fan of mac and cheese: it’s not that that I don’t like it, it’s just that I find it too bland for a whole meal. This, in contrast, was excellent, a really taste dish with lots of variety. The dessert was excellent too: rich, creamy and not too salty. We also had cheese and crackers (a decent mature cheddar and a pair of wafer crackers) but sadly no port.
The cabin crew came around with coffee and tea at 18.45, but having tried the coffee when I flew back flew back from Boston at the end of last month, we declined. Dinner was all over, and our tables cleared, by 19:05, leaving us with about five hours left in our flight.
These days I consider anything under eight hours a short flight, so the five hours passed relatively quickly. We took a northerly route which came close to the southern tip of Greenland, a route I’m more used to taking when flying to places like Chicago. I spent most of my time working, while Amanda read.
The cabin crew left the lights on until 20:35, although it was still quite light outside, with the sun not setting until half an hour later, when I got up to make some coffee. I was using up the last of an Ethiopian from Hundred House Coffee which had been in the back of my freezer for a couple of years. Even though I say so myself, it turned out pretty good.
We crossed the Canadian cost at around 22:00, which I always take as a sign that I’m on the last leg of the flight (when flying to Boston or New York that is). I took another break around then and made some more coffee, just before the cabin crew came around with the end of flight snack (in this case a hummus sandwich). The good news is that this required them to put the cabin lights back on, which then stayed on until the end of the flight.
About an hour later at 23:30, the pilot announced 40 minutes to landing, just as we crossed over northern Maine (it made a nice change since I’m used to approaching/departing from Boston over the Atlantic Ocean). Although I didn’t check, I’m fairly sure we flew almost directly over Portland. The seat belt signs came on 20 minutes later and we landed at 00:10 (19:10 local time), slightly ahead of schedule.
At that time of night, Boston is quite quiet, so we got to the gate within 10 minutes and, five minutes later, we were off the plane. I find immigration a bit hit and miss in the US, with the results very much dependent on the airport and the time of day. Here we hit it lucky, Amanda and I being able to use the same queue, which was very short. Ten minutes later, we were at the baggage carousel, where we had the longest wait of the night, a whole 15 minutes, which was just long enough to miss the bus to Portland.
The next bus wasn’t until 20:35, but, just our luck, it was delayed by roadworks at the airport (which meant that we probably just missed the previous bus which was scheduled for an hour before). However, the bus to Portland is pretty good, just a two-hour ride up US 1 and I-95, which meant we got to Amanda’s not long after 11 o’clock.
In summary, I must confess that I was worried after all my trips in business class/premium economy, I’d find the transition to economy fairly tough, but in reality, it was fine (although getting the exit row seat was a non-negotiable precondition). In many ways I’m happier travelling in the exit row seats in economy than I am in a regular premium economy seat. I also found getting to Portland on the bus more convenient than flying into a hub like Philadelphia and then catching a domestic flight back up to Portland.
We had a week in Portland, and then it was off to our next stop, Atlanta, travelling by car and train.
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