Brian’s Travel Spot: Chicago and Flying Home

Mademoiselle Rouge, a Virgin Atlantic Airbus A330-300, on the stand at Heathrow Airport, Terminal 3, having flown me back from Chicago O'Hare in 2016.Welcome to the fifth and final instalment of my Travel Spot describing my first around-the-world trip in 2016. I flew from Manchester to Hong Kong, spent five days there, acclimatising and sightseeing, then moved onto Shanghai for work. From there, I flew to Chicago via Beijing, crossing the international dateline in the process. This final instalment covers my 10 days in Chicago and my flight home to the UK.

It was, in many ways, an amazing trip: my first time flying with Emirates, China Eastern and Hainan Airlines, my first time on an Airbus A380 and my first time in Shanghai. Of those firsts, I’ve gone on to repeat every experience apart from flying with Emirates. That I also flew around the world made it even more special.

It was fitting that the last leg of the trip was in Chicago, a city that I’m very familiar with. That said, although I refer to “staying in Chicago”, I was actually visiting friends who live in Chicago in the same sense that I live in London, the point being that I actually live in Guildford, which is about as far from London as my friends’ place is from Chicago.

With that out of the way, let’s get on with the Travel Spot, which, as usual, I’ve split into the following sections:

We’ll get started after the gallery.

  • Much of my time in 'Chicago' was spent relaxing by the pool. This pool, in fact.
  • Well, relaxing and working.
  • Although there was a lot of relaxing.
  • If that was too much, I could always go up on the deck...
  • ... and if the sunshine was too much, I could always retire to the porch on the other side...
  • ... which was best for working on my laptop. And drinking coffee.
  • There was also a lake at the bottom of the garden...
  • On a couple of occasions, I was awake far too early in the morning, when I found that...
  • ... the lake was wreathed in mist, which was quite magical.
  • There were also occasional visitors to the property...
  • ... who didn't stay on their side of the fence.
  • They weren't by any means tame, but they were quite bold.
  • Oops. Looks like I've been rumbled!
Much of my time in 'Chicago' was spent relaxing by the pool. This pool, in fact.1 Well, relaxing and working.2 Although there was a lot of relaxing.3 If that was too much, I could always go up on the deck...4 ... and if the sunshine was too much, I could always retire to the porch on the other side...5 ... which was best for working on my laptop. And drinking coffee.6 There was also a lake at the bottom of the garden...7 On a couple of occasions, I was awake far too early in the morning, when I found that...8 ... the lake was wreathed in mist, which was quite magical.9 There were also occasional visitors to the property...10 ... who didn't stay on their side of the fence.11 They weren't by any means tame, but they were quite bold.12 Oops. Looks like I've been rumbled!13
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My friends live well outside of the city, a small town in the northwest suburbs, well over an hour’s travel from the centre. As a result, I saw very little of Chicago on this trip, instead spending most of my time hanging out by the pool (my friends’ house has a pool and a lake) and getting over my jet lag.

In many ways, this was the perfect way to end the trip. I’d had a few days sightseeing and acclimatising in Hong Kong, then came the work portion in Shanghai, and now I could kick back and relax, which was just as well since I always find jet lag a lot worse going from west to east. As a result, I wasn’t fit for much else for at least the first week of my visit!

My strategy for overcoming jet lag has always been to get onto local time as quickly as possible. That means going to bed at a sensible hour and getting up in the morning, no matter how tired you feel. On the two occasions that I’ve ignored my own advice, I’ve had terrible jet lag.

Having arrived in Chicago in the middle of the afternoon, that meant staying awake until late evening, which was something of a challenge since by that point I’d been up for over 20 hours and my body clock thought it was the early hours of the morning! Although I managed it, the rest of that week was pretty rough: I was tired for much of the day and didn’t sleep particularly well at nights, often waking up very early (the opposite problem of sleeping in too late). On the plus side, this did mean that I caught the early-morning mist on the lake a couple of times, which was magical.

I was really glad that I had little else to do other than hang out with my friends. Although I was still working, this consisted of a couple of two-hour conference calls, plus a small amount of document editing, all of which I was able to achieve sitting out by the pool, or, if it was too sunny, in the shade of the veranda on other side of the house.

The weather, by the way, was gorgeous. Early October in the UK generally means cold and grey, or, if you’re lucky, cold and clear. During my stay in Chicago, the temperatures were regularly around 25°C, more like a British summer. The only downside was the humidity, which, while not as bad as Shanghai, was still a lot worse than I’m used to.

In all I had 10 full days in Chicago, arriving on the Monday afternoon and leaving on Friday evening of the following week. There was a social event at the weekend (the whole reason for me coming to Chicago) which was great, since I could catch up with lots of friends I don’t see very often.

The following week, I felt a little more like my normal self and so was able to take a couple of day trips into Chicago, which you can read about after the gallery.

  • Being driven into Chicago is a rare treat for me. Here's my first view of the skyline...
  • ... and the famous Willis Tower (once known as the Sears Tower), the city's tallest.
  • This, meanwhile, is 875 North Michigan Avenue (once the John Hancock Center)...
  • ... which is north of the Willis Tower and is Chicago's fourth tallest building.
  • This being America, the freeway takes you right into the city centre...
  • ... where I was dropped off. This is by a bend in the Chicago River, with a collection of...
  • ... some of the city's finest architecture. The Trump Tower is Chicago's second tallest...
  • ... while just across the way is one of my favourites, the Wrigley Building.
  • My river cruise departed from nearby. This is the view as we headed west along the river.
  • You should be able to recognise those two buildings!
  • Another favourites, Marina City, which is more often known as the 'corn cobs'.
  • Not that spectacular, but the one at the back is my hotel where I stay when on business.
  • A look back along the north bank of the river with the Merchandise Mart in the foreground.
  • The view in the other direction, looking at the reflections in the curve of 333 Wacker Drive.
  • The cruise then goes up the Chicago River's north branch. This bridge is permanently up.
  • We were soon back, heading south down the main channel and past Union Station...
  • ... which is under the current street level. If you look closely, you can sometimes see...
  • ... a train, like this one. I think that's the upper deck of an Amtrak Superliner carriage.
  • The cruise carries on south, past the southern edge of the Loop and turns around by...
  • ... the River City Apartments. There are great views of the Willis Tower from here.
  • Here's an action shot of our docent in full flow. He was very good.
  • And unobstructed view of the Willis Tower. It used to be the tallest building in the world...
  • ... but now it's not even the tallest in America (3rd), and ranks just 22nd in the world.
  • Not very photogenic, I know, but I like passing under all the bridges.
  • Then it's back the way we came: here's Marina City again...
  • ... and the Wrigley Building, with the Tribune Tower across the way.
  • However, that's not the end. The cruise keeps going east, under Lake Shore Drive...
  • ... to turn around at the lock that marks the end of river and the start of Lake Michigan.
  • Then we head back a short way along the river to our berth. Time to say goodbye to our...
  • ... docent and to our boat, Chicago's Leading Lady, one of several used for these cruises.
  • After a little more sightseeing, I caught the train back to the suburbs...
  • ... getting off at Buffalo Grove station.
  • Two days later, I was back on the trains. This is actually taken at Clybourne...
  • ... my destination for the day...
  • ... which you can see clearly now the train has gone.
  • I was heading for this: The 606, an old freight railway converted into a park.
  • The 606 has handy signposts at each entrance/exit...
  • ... while in between it is a broad, paved path.
  • This is one of the many bridges that used to take the railway over the streets below...
  • ... while this is one of the aforementioned streets below. After about 20 minutes...
  • ... The 606 crosses Milwaukee Avenue. It goes further west, but this was as far as I got.
  • Talking of trains, here's the Blue Line, which still runs above the streets.
  • First stop, the original Buzz Killer Espresso...
  • ... for a cappuccino and a cake.
  • Next, La Colombe, nestling under the Blue Line...
  • ... where my coffee came in the prettiest of cups.
  • From there, it was on to Wormwhole...
  • ... for a decaf cortado.
  • And my final stop of the day: Ipsento 606, conveniently located almost directly under...
  • ... The 606, where I had a beautifully presented espresso to round off my day.
  • By then it was getting dark...
  • ... so it was time to return along The 606 to catch the train back to my friends' house.
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The first of my two trips was to downtown Chicago where I met up with a couple of friends who were in town for that weekend’s social event. We were going on the Chicago Architecture Center’s cruise along the Chicago River. It’s something I’ve done on previous visits to Chicago, but nevertheless, I always find it worthwhile (there are other architecture boat tours so make sure you get the one run by the Chicago Architecture Center). The tour departed from a wharf near the eastern end of the river and went all the way down past the Willis Tower before turning around and coming back, with a detour along the northern branch of the Chicago River where, if the wind is in the right direction, you can smell the nearby chocolate factory.

Commentary is provided by one of the Chicago Architecture Center’s docents, who are usually professional architectures with a wealth of knowledge about the various buildings. This is a cut above your average tour, so while you’ll get the usual facts, you’ll also get a huge amount of inside information about the design and construction of skyscrapers, with Chicago boasting many world-leading examples. Even better, since each docent is giving you a personal opinion rather than following a set script, each tour is different, which is why I’ve found it worth my while to take the tour multiple times over the years.

I normally take the train into Chicago, but on this occasion, one of my friends drove me in, which provided me with a different view of the city, although I caught the train back. Two days later, I was back on the train for my second trip, which was purely for Coffee Spot duties. On previous visits to Chicago, I’d largely restricted myself to the Loop and River North, but on this occasion, I wanted to explore Milwaukee Avenue, a long, straight avenue which runs northwest out of the city centre, cutting across Chicago’s regular north-south/east-west grid pattern of streets.

Milwaukee Avenue is also something of a magnet for speciality coffee shops, with each neighbourhood having its own cluster, often focused around one of the stops on Chicago’s Blue Line, which runs parallel to Milwaukee Avenue, sometimes rattling along above it on elevated tracks, and at other times running through tunnels beneath it.

This was my first time in the area, although since then I’ve extended my reach, visiting the likes of Logan Square (2018) and Wicker Park (2020). For this visit, I chose the area around Damen Avenue, which I reached by taking the commuter train to Clybourn. From there, I was able to walk west along The 606, an old freight railway that ceased operation in the 1990s and has been converted into a linear park/path (much like The High Line in New York City).

This took me all the way across to Milwaukee Avenue, about a 20-minute walk, where I visited the original Buzz Killer Espresso, La Colombe, Wormhole Coffee and Ipsento 606 before making my way back along The 606 to Clybourn at dusk to catch the train back to the suburbs.

A few words about Chicago’s commuter trains, run by Metra. They are an excellent (and cheap) way in and out of the city, although they really are set up for commuters. It takes about an hour from the station nearest my friends’ house to the centre which, depending on the line, is either Union Station or Ogilvie Transportation Center (just north of Union Station). While there are plenty of inbound trains in the morning, and plenty of outbound trains in the evening, there’s not much of a service during the day or later in the evenings, while on one of the two lines, there’s no service at all at weekends! They’re also double deckers, so sit on the top deck if you can!

I got safely back to my friends’ house and, with that, my stay in Chicago had come to an end. It was time to go home.

You can read about my flight back to the UK after the gallery.

  • Back at Chicago O'Hare Airport, Terminal 5.
  • I ended up camped here, in the coffee shop opposite security. The staff gave me some...
  • ... hot water, so I was able to make some coffee for the flight in my Travel Press.
  • Then it was off down the long corridors to the gate so I could board my plane...
  • ... which was waiting for me when I got there.
Back at Chicago O'Hare Airport, Terminal 5.1 I ended up camped here, in the coffee shop opposite security. The staff gave me some...2 ... hot water, so I was able to make some coffee for the flight in my Travel Press.3 Then it was off down the long corridors to the gate so I could board my plane...4 ... which was waiting for me when I got there.5
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Ironically, the final leg of my trip, the flight from Chicago back to the UK, was the hardest part to arrange. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and the three main US carriers all wanted thousands of pounds for a one-way flight. Eventually I found an option where I could fly to New York and get a Thomas Cook flight to Manchester for under £500, but that seemed like a lot of unnecessary effort.

At that point I remembered my airmiles with Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. These had been gathered painstakingly, one economy flight at a time, and horded over a period of nearly 20 years. Maybe this was the time to cash them in? As it turned out, it was the perfect time to cash them in. Even better, I discovered that since I was flying from Chicago to London, Virgin Atlantic insisted on sending me to its American website, where the taxes seemed far lower than the equivalent for a one-way London to Chicago flight. So, for the princely sum of $135 plus some airmiles (British Airways wanted twice as much, by the way), I was on my way back to the UK.

I’ve written about Chicago’s O’Hare Airport quite a bit when, the following year, I flew from Chicago to UK three times in quick succession, although only one of those flights was from Terminal 5, O’Hare’s international terminal, which is the departure point for British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights.

When I first started flying from O’Hare almost 20 years ago, Terminal 5 was very sparse, with hardly any facilities beyond security. That was grim if you got there two hours early for your flight… Since then it’s been extended and refurbished, making for a fairly pleasant experience.

In many ways, set off to one side of the main airport, and only dealing with international flights, it’s very much an airport within an airport, and a small one at that, much like the international departures area in Beijing. On one memorable occasion, when I’d been delayed by engineering works on the Blue Line getting out to the airport, I arrived at security 20 minutes before my flight was due to leave and still managed to get on the plane!

On this occasion, I allowed myself a little more time, my friends dropping me off at the airport ahead of schedule. Even though it was a Friday evening, it was pretty quiet and I got through security with plenty of time to spare, so I got some hot water from the coffee shop opposite security and made some coffee in my Travel Press which I took on the plane with me (this one, fortunately, didn’t get confiscated by security).

Unlike British Airways, who always seem to get (pay for?) a gate right next to security, my Virgin Atlantic flight departed from the far end of the terminal at Gate 19. I waited in the central area, by the coffee shop, until my flight was shown as boarding, then made my way down. As a result, by the time I arrived at the gate, everyone else had already boarded, so I walked straight on.

You can read about the flight itself after the gallery.

  • I got my usual exit row seat, where I had my pre-prepared coffee.
  • Dinner was the standard, vegetarian meal, which turned out to be vegan. I was not...
  • ... very impressed with the dessert though, so was delighted when these turned up!
  • Later on in the flight, I wandered down to the galley, where I was given this sandwich...
  • ... and a short while later, this very fine cheesecake arrived, on a proper plate, no less!
  • I'm rarely up earlier enough for dawn, and when I am, it's often on flights.
  • And here comes the sun! It's about 07:30 in the morning and we are on our final...
  • ... approach to Heathrow, coming in from the west.
  • Nice wing-tip.
  • We're still high above the clouds, but descending rapidly. Ten minutes later...
  • ... we break through the bottom of the cloud just as we fly over Windsor Castle.
  • Twenty minutes later, we were on the ground and off the plane. I'm back in the UK!
  • I still had to get to Manchester though. Step one, take the tube to central London and...
  • ... get some coffee, in this case from the Origin espresso bar on Euston Road...
  • ... where I had a much-needed flat white.
  • Then I swapped Virgin Atlantic for Virgin Trains, first catching a Pendolino to Crewe...
  • ... where I changed onto another Virgin train, a Super Voyager, to take me to Chester...
  • ... where my final train, from Arriva Trains Wales, was waiting to take me to Flint.
  • And here I am, back where I started, just 26 days after I set off.
I got my usual exit row seat, where I had my pre-prepared coffee.1 Dinner was the standard, vegetarian meal, which turned out to be vegan. I was not...2 ... very impressed with the dessert though, so was delighted when these turned up!3 Later on in the flight, I wandered down to the galley, where I was given this sandwich...4 ... and a short while later, this very fine cheesecake arrived, on a proper plate, no less!5 I'm rarely up earlier enough for dawn, and when I am, it's often on flights.6 And here comes the sun! It's about 07:30 in the morning and we are on our final...7 ... approach to Heathrow, coming in from the west.8 Nice wing-tip.9 We're still high above the clouds, but descending rapidly. Ten minutes later...10 ... we break through the bottom of the cloud just as we fly over Windsor Castle.11 Twenty minutes later, we were on the ground and off the plane. I'm back in the UK!12 I still had to get to Manchester though. Step one, take the tube to central London and...13 ... get some coffee, in this case from the Origin espresso bar on Euston Road...14 ... where I had a much-needed flat white.15 Then I swapped Virgin Atlantic for Virgin Trains, first catching a Pendolino to Crewe...16 ... where I changed onto another Virgin train, a Super Voyager, to take me to Chester...17 ... where my final train, from Arriva Trains Wales, was waiting to take me to Flint.18 And here I am, back where I started, just 26 days after I set off.19
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My plane, Mademoiselle Rouge, was an Airbus A330-300, which was less than five years old (as an aside, I flew from Boston to London on Mademoiselle Rouge in 2019, but that time was in premium economy). However, I’d been spoilt throughout the trip by flying on very modern aircraft with at seat-power, whereas, although this a relatively new plane, there was only USB power in economy which was disappointing. On the plus side, battery technology/power efficiency in laptops has improved in leaps and bounds over the last few years, so I was able to nurse my laptop through the 7½ hour flight.

The A330 is a relatively narrow wide-bodied airliner, which Virgin Atlantic had in a 2-4-2 configuration. I’d reserved my usual exit row seat, sitting at the front of the rear section of economy, in the aisle seat on the left-hand side, although there was no-one in the seat next to me, so I was able to get some pictures out of the window.

As is usual with flights back from Chicago, we left in the early evening and arrived at London Heathrow the following morning. When I’m flying overnight in economy, I don’t sleep in my seat for medical reasons, so I had to stay awake for the entire flight (the coffee I’d made before boarding the plane helped), as well as getting up and wandering around at regular intervals.

Since pretty much everyone else is asleep, it’s a relatively quiet time for the cabin crew, who are often happy to chat. Since they knew I had to stay awake, they also made a fuss of me. This started with the evening meal which, since I’d booked the vegetarian option, had its own (rather unappetising) dessert. Fortunately, one of the cabin crew, Lilly, saved me a couple of zingy lemon puddings, which were part of the main meal service, which went down treat.

I tend to get a dip in energy in the small hours of the morning, so I wandered down to the galley to see if there was anything to eat and the head of the cabin crew gave me his sandwich. No sooner had I finished that than Lilly re-appeared with an amazing cheesecake which had clearly come from the Upper Class section (Virgin’s combined business/first class), since it was on a proper plate and came with a real, metal fork. I was so spoiled on that flight!

The rest of the flight passed really quickly (anything under eight hours counts, in my mind, as a “short” flight), so before I knew it we were coming in to land at Heathrow. We were on the ground just before eight o’clock in the morning and quickly off the plane and through customs. From there, it was just a matter of collecting my bag and then making my way back to my Dad’s.

Having flown from Manchester, it would have been ideal to fly back there, but sadly Virgin Atlantic don’t have any flights to Manchester, only Heathrow and Gatwick (I’ve since become adept at this, flying with British Airways to Heathrow and then catching the shuttle to Manchester, or using codeshare with American Airlines, once flying direct between Chicago and Manchester).

However, on this occasion, I was reliant on Virgin Trains rather than Virgin Atlantic, and so took the tube into central London, a journey of just over an hour on the Piccadilly Line. Just before 11 o’clock, I was at King’s Cross tube station, from where I made my way to Origin on Euston Road for a much needed coffee. This also had the advantage of killing some time before my train, which left just after noon from Euston, a short walk away.

If I’m lucky, travelling during on a weekday and get my timing right, I can get on of a handful of direct trains from Euston to Flint. However, I was travelling on a Saturday, which meant getting a train to Crewe, where I had to change to another Virgin Train to take me to Chester (ironically, this had also come from Euston, but it would have cost another £20 to travel on that one), where I changed for a local train to take me to Flint. I arrived just before three o’clock, a mere 26 days after I’d left

And that concludes my first around the world trip. Thanks for coming along with me and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.


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3 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: Chicago and Flying Home

  1. Pingback: Brian’s Travel Spot: Shanghai to Chicago | Brian's Coffee Spot

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