Welcome to the first Travel Spot since March 2020 where I’m writing about a trip I’ve just taken rather than something from my (extensive) backlog. I’m currently in Reykjavik in Iceland, having flown from Heathrow with British Airways. If you’re wondering why Iceland, the explanation is fairly simple: Amanda lives in America, while I live in the UK. With the odd exception, Americans can’t come to the UK and British people can’t fly to America. However, we can both go to Iceland, and, having not seen each other since I left Atlanta during that March 2020 trip, it was too good of an opportunity to miss! Plus, we have both always wanted to visit Iceland, which really made it a no-brainer.
Although I flew in Euro Traveller (economy to you and me), I am aware that I am in a very privileged position when it comes to flying. I still have all my status with British Airways, carefully built up over the three years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, when I flew around the world for work. In my case, this means that I have access to the First Class lounge at Heathrow, which makes the whole airport experience immeasurably better.
Compared to most of my trips, which have typically involved travelling all over the place, this one is pretty simple: fly to Iceland, fly back nine days later. Despite that, booking it was a pain, including having my return flight cancelled (the original plan was fly out, fly back 10 days later). A large part of the complication arose due to my having cancelled multiple flights at the start of the pandemic and accepting vouchers from British Airways rather than a refund.
Two of those vouchers were for reward flights, which were paid in a combination of airmiles and money. Rather than just refund the airmiles and issue a voucher for the money, British Airways (probably because of the speed with which everything shut down at the start of the pandemic) issued a combined voucher covering both airmiles and money. Unfortunately, instead of entering a code online, these can only be redeemed by speaking to a member of staff, something which I discovered to my cost right at the end of the booking process, at which point I decided to stop, regroup and get some sleep.
The following day, I called British Airways and, after multiple calls and many hours (literally) on hold, I finally got through to the right person, who was able to sort everything out for me. My only advice if you find yourself in a similar situation is to use your status and call the Executive Club number, not to the general booking number, which was my initial mistake. It’s possible that things aren’t as efficient for the lower tiers, but as a Gold member, the waiting times were minutes rather than half an hour, while the staff were much more knowledgeable. Annoyingly, you can only use one voucher per booking, so as I have two of them, I’ll have to do it all again. At least I’ll know better the second time around.
Moving onto the flights themselves, regular readers will know that I really don’t do morning. Sadly, British Airways only has one flight a day to Reykjavik, which leaves at 07:45! I briefly considered switching allegiance and flying Icelandair, which has two flights a day, one at the more reasonable hour of 13:10 and a much later flight leaving at 21:25, but only arriving in Reykjavik just before midnight. However, coming back at the weekend, there’s only one flight and that departs at the even more unreasonable hour of 07:40! So, British Airways it was.
Leaving Heathrow at 07:45 meant ordering a taxi for 05:30, which in turn meant getting up at 05:15 (I’d packed the night before and was going to have breakfast at the airport). To make matters worse, I had a work call the evening before which didn’t finish until midnight and it was one of the hottest nights of the year, which made sleeping difficult. In all, I probably got a couple of hours sleep… On the plus side, it was a beautiful morning, with the sun just above the horizon and a light mist lingering on the fields as my taxi drove me down the A3 and M25 to Heathrow, where I arrived at six o’clock (another advantage of flying at that time of the morning: no traffic!).
In many ways, rolling up to Heathrow felt very familiar, having done it many times before. One of the perks of having Gold status with British Airways, which I only discovered on my final flight before COVID-19, is that there is a dedicated check-in area for First Class and Gold members at the far end of Terminal 5. With this in mind, I had my taxi to take me to the very far end of the drop off area and was able to walk straight into the terminal opposite First Class check-in.
The first difference from pre-COVID times was the signage: despite the government abolishing almost all legal restrictions regarding COVID-19 in England a few days earlier, I was relieved to see that British Airways still required everyone to wear masks, both in the terminal and on flights, which I found very reassuring.
The next difference was at check-in, which was a little more involved than usual. On-line check-in was unavailable, although it would have been nice if British Airways had made that clear in its pre-flight e-mails, which still have the standard “check in on-line” blurb from the pre-pandemic days). This is because check-in staff have to perform a number of checks depending on where you are flying. In my case, I was required to show my COVID-19 vaccination certificate (an entry requirement for Iceland), which was carefully checked against my passport, then I had to (briefly) remove my mask while my passport photo was checked.
Despite the added checks, there were no queues, and, less than five minutes after stepping out of my taxi, I was on my way to security, where you experience another perk of First Class check-in: a dedicated security lane. Again, there were no queues, and by 07:10 I was walking down the secret corridor and into the back of the First Class lounge.
The lounge felt very familiar, but there were plenty of changes since my last visit almost 18 months earlier. Other than wearing a mask, the biggest was the withdrawal of all self-service elements. This means no more helping yourself to drinks, no hot or cold buffet and, for me, no timing my shots on the espresso machines!
Instead, everything is now table service, with a QR Code to scan on your table. This gets you access to the normal range of food that British Airways usually offers, plus a limited range of buffet items, along with drinks, both hot and cold (although staff will also take your order manually if required). I ordered a latte and a pain au chocolate, plus the vegetarian cooked breakfast, thinking that I’d eat the pain au chocolate with my coffee while I waited for my breakfast. However, the service was super-efficient, my coffee arriving less than two minutes after I’d ordered it. I barely had time to photograph it before my breakfast was brought to my table!
I’ve had plenty of airport breakfasts, ranging from average to downright poor. The best of the bunch were from the British Airways lounges, but they were always the buffet breakfast. This is the first individual breakfast I’d ordered from the menu and the difference was noticeable, with each individual item a step up in quality. I was particularly impressed with the baked beans and the scrambled egg. All-in-all, it was an excellent start to the day, almost making up for my having to get up so early!
With breakfast out of the way, I had intended to return to the lounge area (although you can also order food from the lounge seating) but there wasn’t too long to go before my flight, so instead I ordered some orange juice and water, wrote the introduction to this Travel Spot, then headed down to my gate.
British Airways tends to operate its short-haul flights from the A gates, which are in the same block as the main lounges, reserving the B and C gates (which you have to use the underground transit to reach) for the long-haul flights. The First Class lounge is at the southern end of the terminal and, typically, my flight left from Gate A7, at the terminal’s northern end, although in reality, this is less than a five-minute walk. My boarding pass said boarding commenced at 07:05, so I left the lounge shortly after that and, despite dawdling along the way, I still reached the gate before boarding began.
As usual, there wasn’t really enough seating at the gate, particularly as plenty of seats had been taken out of use to ensure social distancing, which was all the more reason not to leave the lounge early. However, I had timed things just about right, reaching the gate at 07:15, with boarding beginning a few minutes later. Normally, when flying economy, I’d be at the back of the queue and would try to be one of the last ones on, but one of the many perks of Gold status is preferential boarding. As soon as the first call for boarding was made, I went for it, ending up as the third person through the gate. Once again, everybody was being manually checked and, as before, I had to briefly remove my mask so that my photograph in my passport could be checked.
Despite this, there was a queue on the airbridge, the result of a couple of families have been pre-boarded before us. Even so, I was at my seat by 07:25, having bagged an aisle seat in the emergency exit row about two-thirds of the way back. Boarding was pretty smooth, being completed by 07:40 and we pushed back on time at 07:45.
In pre-COVID times, virtually all British Airways flights had videos for the safety briefing. However, since the rules and procedures are constantly changing, for the time being, all safety briefings are manual, which was quite novel! We spent five minutes on the apron to watch the briefing, the main change being a reminder to take our own masks off before attaching the oxygen mask!
I’ve flown from Heathrow many times and, before COVID-19 came along, you could usually rely on a 20-minute taxi, mostly spent in a queue waiting to take off, nudging forward a couple of plane lengths every minute or so. This time, however, we had the call for the aircrew to take seats for take off at 07:55 and from there, it was pretty much straight onto the runway and into the air, our wheels leaving the ground at 08:00.
When flying short-haul, mostly on the short hops I used to take to/from Manchester to see my Dad at the start/end of a longer trip, I became used to British Airways’ smaller Airbus A319 (and occasionally A320) fleet. Although I’ve been on one of British Airways’ A321s on a couple of flights to/from Europe, this was the first time I’d flown on an A321neo (and a brand-new one at that!).
The comparison to an A319 is like chalk and cheese. To start with, the plane is much longer, stretching back 37 rows (compared to 25 in a standard A319). Although the two planes are the same width, the A321neo feels so much bigger and roomier inside. This is partly due to where I typically sit: on the short hops to/from Manchester, I invariably flew Club Europe (business) and in the A319s, with their four or five rows of Club Europe seating at the front, this meant that my experience of the aircraft was very limited, never getting more than a few rows back.
In contrast, this time I was flying Euro Traveller (economy) and had got my usual exit row aisle seat, which put me in row 27 (in the A319s I’m familiar with, this would have put me two rows behind the tail!). Exit rows come in all shapes and sizes, but this one was awesome. Just behind the wing, it had masses of leg room. Whereas the other rows in the plane had their typical knees-against-the-seat-in-front spacing, here I could stretch my legs right out and not even touch the seat in front, which is a rare luxury.
The only thing to watch out for if you do book one of these seats is that there is no window: what is supposed to be the window-seat is in fact up against the bulkhead by the emergency exit door. Not that this mattered to me in my aisle seat, but had I specifically booked the window-seat, I might have felt aggrieved (note that if you book a seat in row 11, the exit row at the front of the wing, you get a window, since it’s a much smaller, emergency exit door).
The other reason the cabin feels bigger is, I think, down to the seats themselves. My recollection of British Airways short haul seats is that they were quite bulky, with thick seatbacks and wide armrests. These are much slimmer and the armrests (other than in the exit rows) are the fold-down type I expect to see on trains, not planes. The result is that the seats feel a little wider, although they were just as comfortable to sit in. One other thing I noticed is that none of the seats seemed able to recline, which, for someone who has long legs, is excellent news.
Being an exit row seat, I had a fold-out table in the armrest which was excellent. It’s a typical fold-out table, but since it was very new, it was still quite stable (the hinges on the older tables get very loose). It was also surprisingly big, being slightly wider and deeper than my laptop, plus it had a good range of travel forwards and backwards, so I had no problem getting it into a decent position for typing.
Two other benefits of flying on a more modern aircraft are at-seat power (two USB outlets between each pair of seats, but sadly no AC power) and Wi-fi. The Wi-fi, which I’m becoming used to on American domestic flights, is free to access and offers a limited range of services, such as a flight monitor (time remaining, altitude and speed, but no map) and on-line version of the High Life magazine (other than the safety card, there are no printed materials on board). There’s also information on COVID-19 testing and you can manage other British Airways flight bookings. Finally, if you really can’t stand to be disconnected from the outside world, there are several internet packages available.
My flight, as I never tire of reporting, was uneventful. It’s been really hot in the UK, with a series of days where the temperature has been around 30°C. Even though it was early morning, it was already 18°C and a lot hotter on the plane. Although the air conditioning was fully on, it never works particularly well until the engines start up, so for the first half an hour or so, it was distinctly hot and sticky, then it started to rapidly cool, with everyone (myself included) rushing to put jumpers on!
There were some differences compared to pre-pandemic flying. The most obvious was the requirement to wear a mask, which was, as far as I could tell, well-complied with. It was certainly better than any train or bus I’d been on in the UK in the last few months, which was reassuring. Another restriction was the request not to walk around the plane and not to queue for then toilets, which was okay for a short haul flight, but is going to hit me hard for longer flights since I need to get up and walk around to help my circulation.
In theory, the Wifi gives access to the in-flight catering menu, but for the moment, British Airways has limited its in-flight catering to pre-ordered food/drink, so if you haven’t thought to order something ahead of time, you’ll be out of luck (although I believe that there’s still a meal service in Club Europe). For the rest of us, we had to make do with a cereal bar and a bottle of water, although as a Gold member, I got an extra bottle of water, which came in handy. I was very glad that I’d eaten in the lounge though, otherwise I’d have been starving.
Since I had an aisle seat, I wasn’t able to gauge our progress, particularly since there were no in-flight maps, although the Wifi did show how long was left, along with the plane’s altitude and speed. I had expected to be tired, but I didn’t feel too bad, so got my laptop out and wrote some more of this Travel Spot.
The estimated flight time was two hours and forty minutes and, about halfway through, I hit a wall, dozing for the rest of the flight, only really waking up when the pilot announced, at 10:20 UK time, that we were 20 minutes from landing, which set off the usual rush to get everything put away. The cabin crew took their seats for landing at 10:30 and, almost exactly on time, we touched down at 10:39 (09:39 Iceland time).
Having landed on time at Keflavik, Iceland’s international airport, the next challenge was to get off the plane. In pre-pandemic times, this would have been a free-for-all, but for the moment British Airways is disembarking in groups, partly to reduce the amount of time people spend standing next to each other and partly to ease the rush of people into the airport. Unsurprisingly, they started at the front, with the front seven rows being let off first. Then it was rows 8 to 14, followed by 15 to 21, after which it was the usual free-for-all. Once off the plane, there was the usual walk down many corridors to reach passport control, where, perhaps because of the staged disembarking, or whether Keflavik is a small airport, so doesn’t have many planes arriving at once, there were hardly any queues.
After a brief passport check and stamp, I was on my way again, this time to baggage reclaim where, despite the delay in disembarking, I still arrived before my bag, which was sneaked out in the over-sized baggage area, being one of the last ones out. Despite this, it was only 40 minutes after we landed that I was facing my final challenge: customs.
Currently, if you have received two doses of a recognised COVID-19 vaccine, you are free to enter Iceland without any tests or quarantine. All you have to do is show proof of vaccination status: for UK visitors, the vaccine status section of the NHS App is sufficient, while for Amanda, showing the card she was given when she was vaccinated in the US was good enough. The only other thing you need is a completed pre-registration entry form, which you can fill in on-line in the 72 hours before you fly. This will result in a barcode being e-mailed to you, which you show to the customs official and then you’re in (if you forget or have lost your code, there is an area just before the customs booths where you can fill out the form).
I found Amanda waiting for me on the other side of the customs area, her flight from Boston having arrived a few hours before mine. From there, we caught the Flybus into Reykjavik, buying the ticket from the driver (although with hindsight, we should have bought them online ahead of time). The coach is well-appointed, with USB outlets in the seatbacks, along with free Wifi. The drive into Reykjavik takes about 50 minutes, giving us our first views of the Icelandic countryside before we were dropped at the main bus station on the south side of the city, quite close to the famous Hallgrimskirkja church.
From there, we transferred to a shuttle bus which takes you to a stop close to your hotel, although in the case of our hotel, it turns out that it’s only a 15-minute walk from the bus station. Had I known that, I might have been tempted to walk, since it would have been quicker than waiting for the shuttle, being driven around Reykjavik and then walking (uphill) from the bus stop to the hotel! Maybe next time…
And that’s it. My first flight since March 2020 successfully competed. You can see how I got on flying back to Heathrow in the second installment of this Travel Spot, while you can check out the whole trip on its Travel Spot page. You can also take a look at the Reykjavik Coffee Spots that Amanda and I visited.
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