Welcome to second instalment of the final Travel Spot from my first trip of 2022, covering my return from Boston four weeks ago. The first instalment dealt with my flight from Boston to London Heathrow, a familiar route, although it was my first time on a Boeing 787-10. All my recent journeys have ended at Heathrow, but on this occasion, I was carrying on to my Dad’s in North Wales, following another familiar route (from pre-pandemic times), the short hop from Heathrow to Manchester Airport.
I’ve always had misgivings about this, not being a great fan of short-haul flights, but the simple fact is that it’s always been the most convenient option, the additional cost of the Heathrow to Manchester leg being negligible (or sometimes zero) compared to the outrageous cost of train travel in the UK. There’s also the additional hassle of hauling my bags across central London and/or taking the tube, neither of which are particularly appealing after a long flight. However, after my experiences this time, compounded by the difficulty in getting from Manchester Airport to North Wales on a Sunday (three trains and a bus), I’m going to be reassessing my options on future trips.
As usual, this is a long post, which I’ve split into the following parts:
- Heathrow Airport
- First Class Lounge
- Boarding and Take-off
- Heathrow to Manchester
- Manchester Airport
- Sunday Trains
- Home at Last
Let’s start where I left off at the end of the first instalment, having just reached Terminal 5 via a short and extremely crowded bus ride from the aircraft, which was parked on the tarmac rather than at a gate. Typically, I would head for passport control at this point, then baggage reclaim, but since I was making the short hop to Manchester, this meant following the purple flight connection signs. Here you’re faced with a series of choices, starting with whether your connecting flight leaves from Terminal 5 or another terminal (in which case you’re funnelled off downstairs to catch a bus).
Next, if your flight is domestic (or you’re flying to Ireland), you’re directed to a separate passport control area, which is where I ended up. I know that Heathrow had terrible problems with long queues at passport control in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the previous two times I flew into Heathrow, I breezed through with no trouble at all. Of course, that was in the main passport control area, rather than flight connections, but it made no difference. While there was a long queue for those requiring a manual check, once again I just walked up to one of the e-gates, scanned my passport and through I went.
Of course, I had to take my mask off for the camera and, just as I had finished putting it back on again (I had it attached to a headband which, while comfortable, was a nightmare to take off/put back on), I was faced with another camera, this time to go with a scan of my boarding pass for the flight to Manchester. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough getting my mask off again, so the e-gate sent me over to the assistance desk, except that neither of the two desks said “assistance desk” on it and neither of the staff seemed sure who was supposed to deal with me. Fortunately, there weren’t any queues here, so once we’d worked out who was meant to check my boarding pass, I was on my way again, this time heading for security.
I’ve been spoilt over the years by Terminal 5, with its fast-track lanes and first class check-in area. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any fast-track lane for security at flight connections (or if there is, I keep missing it). That said, in the grand scheme of things, a 20-minute security queue isn’t too bad, but at the end of an overnight flight, when you’ve had no sleep, it can be very trying. There was also no concept of social distancing in the queue, with plenty of people not wearing their masks, which just added to my bad mood.
It didn’t help that my back was playing up. While sitting or lying down was fine, standing up, particularly standing still, was painful, so a 20-minute stop/start queue was the last thing I needed. The final indignity was having my bag pulled aside for inspection. Initially, I thought it was because I’d left my coffee kit in there. Normally, I send it through the X-ray machine in one of the trays, but, conscious of the long queue behind me, and keen to just get through security, I’d forgotten to take it out of my bag.
However, it turned out that it was actually a small bottle of hand sanitiser, which I’d started to take out of my bag at security at Logan only to be told to put it back in again. So, when I got to Heathrow, it didn’t even occur to me to take it out. Except, of course, it’s a different airport, with different rules. Getting my bag manually checked added another 15 minutes to the whole process, which didn’t improve my mood. While it had taken just 10 minutes from the bus to security, getting through security took another 35 minutes.
Having lounge access has definitely changed the way I plan my trips. Previously, I tried to minimise my time at the airport (always allowing myself enough time to catch my flight or make my connection). Now I look forward to spending time in the lounge, arriving early at the airport. With hindsight, I should have gone for a later flight to Manchester when I was booking the trip, because I was really looking forward to having a break. Instead, with my flight scheduled for 10:50 and the boarding pass saying 10:10 for boarding, I didn’t give me very long.
In fact, had my flight from Boston been on time, I’d would probably have gone straight to the gate. However, its early arrival gave me just long enough time, so I followed the familiar route to the first class lounge at the southern end of the terminal where I had just enough time for coffee, a croissant and a cooked breakfast (having been denied one on the flight from Boston). The main difference in the lounge compared to my flight out was that you now order coffee on-line again, whereas there was a spell where you had to go up to the coffee machines, where a member of staff made if for you.
I didn’t have time to look around, instead just grabbing a seat, and ordering. My coffee arrived by 09:50, with my breakfast (scrambled eggs, vegetarian sausage, hashbrown, mushrooms, tomatoes and a slice of toast) arriving ten minutes after that. Although it was all very good, I didn’t really have time to enjoy it, instead wolfing it down as quickly as I could, with everything turning into a mad dash, reinforcing my belief that I should have given myself a longer layover and a chance to unwind.
As it was, by 10:10 I was on my way again, heading back down to the main departures level and off to the other end of the terminal, where my flight was departing from Gate A4. Except it wasn’t. Gate A4 is one of the lower-level gates where they put you on bus to take you out to the aircraft. Yes, despite Heathrow having around 50% of the passengers it had pre-pandemic, there still aren’t enough gates and, for the second time that morning, I was crammed onto a bus, with my aircraft parked out on the tarmac.
This time was even worse than the bus into the terminal. At least then everyone kept their masks on. Here, people were taking their masks off to have something to eat, talk to their mates or, in one instance, put some makeup on. I’d reached the gate by 10:15, and was on the bus by 10:20, but it took another 15 minutes to get to the aircraft, most of it spent waiting at the gate so that they could cram more and more people onto the bus. It was a complete shambles.
My plane, an Airbus A320, was waiting for us on the tarmac (although I’ve occasionally had the smaller A319 for the shuttle to/from Manchester, the A320 is typical on this route). The first six rows were given over to Club Europe, while the rest of the plane was Euro Traveller (aka economy). I’d book my customary exit row, this time deciding to take the window seat on the right (12F). Since it was only going to be a short flight, I figured it wouldn’t be a problem.
It took about 10 minutes to file up the steps and down the aisle to my seat, which I reached at 10:45. I was able to secure some overhead locker space which, with the flight being almost full, was quickly at a premium (plenty of people had had to check their carry-on bags at the gate). Sadly, the lack of mask wearing on the bus carried on to the flight itself, including the couple sitting next to me.
Just as I thought that everyone had finished boarding at 10:50 (our scheduled departure time) another busload of people arrived, taking up the few remaining empty seats. The doors were closed at 11:00, but there were still people trying to get to their seats, so we didn’t push back until 11:15, 25 minutes behind schedule. We had the customary five minutes on the tarmac for the manual safety briefing, then we joined the long queue of aircraft taxiing alongside the north runway, all on our way to the far end of the airport, since we were taking off to the west.
It’s a familiar, slow route which, when the airport is really busy, can take 20 to 30 minutes. I was, however, a little surprised when we turned off the main taxiway as we passed Terminal 3, coming to a halt on the tarmac. Rather disturbingly, the pilot came on the intercom to say that we had a technical fault, but apparently after turning it off and back on again (the pilot said it was “reset”), the fault cleared, and we were on our way again.
In all, it didn’t cost us very much time as we were only stationary for a couple of minutes. At that point, everyone’s phones should have been in flight safe mode, but that didn’t seem to prevent the person behind me making a phone call and the person next to me sending texts…
We got to the end of the runway five minutes later, at 11:35, where an Air France A319 took off ahead of us, bound for Paris, then it was our turn, sneaking ahead of a Virgin Atlantic A330 waiting to go to Barbados. We swung onto the runway, the pilot opened the throttles and we were off!
Flights between Manchester and London are scheduled to take just over an hour, with the plane typically spending 35 minutes of that in the air, the rest of the time being taken up by taxiing at either end (mostly Heathrow). This flight was no different, with our estimated flight time of 35 minutes putting us on the ground at Manchester by 12:10, 15 minutes behind schedule.
There’s not a great deal you can do on a 35-minute flight, one of the reasons I’d opted for a window seat. However, we went into the clouds within a couple of minutes of take-off, and that’s how things stayed, my view limited to the insides of various clouds. Pretty much the whole flight was spent either climbing or descending (we got to an altitude of 5,500 metres for a whole five minutes before we started our descent). There were also no drop-down monitors, so no moving map, leaving me with no clue what route we took at the time.
However, FlightAware has flight tracking data going back for a month, so I was able to see that we went pretty much due north after leaving Heathrow, then cut up between Birmingham and Leicester before doing a werid loop over Buxton. From there, we flew north over Edale and made our final approach heading southwest in the direction of Stockport.
There used to be no catering in World Traveller on these short flights, but since the pandemic, British Airways has taken to handing out a bottle of water and a packet of crisps to all passengers (Club Europe still gets a meal service). While this makes sense on longer short-haul flights (like the one I took to Iceland) I can’t understand it for a flight lasting 35 minutes.
Since you are supposed to wear a mask unless eating or drinking, all it does is provide a ready-made excuse for those who don’t want to wear their masks. This is exactly what happened to me, with the couple sitting next to me taking off their masks as soon as the water/crisps were handed out, not putting them back on until our final approach.
We started our descent at 11:55, 20 minutes after take-off. At 12:05, while we were doing our loop over Buxton, the seat belts signs back came on, with the pilot announcing 10 minutes to landing. We turning onto our final approach when the pilot announced seats for landing, but then, just as we broke through the clouds, we suddenly turned to port, climbing slightly and gaining speed as we headed south, away from the airport.
The pilot announced that air traffic control had aborted the landing, a flight ahead of us having reported something on the runway as it landed. As a result, we had to go around again, which a couple of passengers took as a good reason to stand up (the seat-belt signs were still on at this point).
Once they were settled back down, we did another loop over Buxton, this time flying north over Glossop before having a second go at landing. This one was a little bumpy on the final approach, but we touched down at 12:30 without incident, the landing itself proving to be very smooth.
After landing, we taxied back from the end of the runway to the terminal buildings, pulling up next to a Ryanair flight at Terminal 3 just as it started raining. This was boarding as we arrived, with the poor souls queuing on the tarmac in the rain. I feared the worst, but for once we had an airbridge, although the flight was also disembarked from the back of the plane, which I assume was via a set of stairs.
The crew announced that Club World (Rows 1 to 6) and Row 25 onwards at the back could disembark first, but after that, it all seemed to fall apart, so I just stayed where I was to let everyone else off first. We’d reached the gate at 12:35, an impressive 40 minutes late (for a one hour flight!), and by 12:45, I was off the plane, making my way down the familiar corridors to a very crowded baggage reclaim.
However, within 10 minutes, I had my bag and was out of the terminal, which just left the small matter of how to get to my Dad’s house. When I used to do this trip for work, I was spoilt, as I’d have a taxi meet me for the hour’s drive along the M56/A55. However, I had also done it by public transport on a few occasions, so I wasn’t too worried.
Transport for Wales runs a handful of direct trains each day between Manchester Airport and Flint (the closest station to my Dad’s), with various other options (and train companies) throughout the day. These include going via Crewe (the route I took the first time I flew from Manchester) or via Manchester Piccadilly and Chester (the route I took the second time I flew from Manchester, albeit on a direct train).
Unfortunately, when planning the trip, I’d forgotten to take into account that I’d be travelling on a Sunday, which means, as every user of British public transport knows to their cost, a much poorer service. For starters, there were no direct trains, but that was the least of my worries. During the week, there are plenty of options involving a single change at Crewe or Chester, but on a Sunday, every option involved either three or four trains, which is not ideal when you have plenty of luggage!
However, before I could sort any of that out, I had to get to Manchester Airport station, which is on the other side of the airport from Terminal 3. As I’ve noted before, this is a bit of a trek, the only good thing being that it’s all under cover and well signposted. However, asking your customers to walk for 10 minutes with all their luggage, including three changes of level, is hardly ideal!
I got to the station at 13:05, where I settled on a route which involved changing at Manchester Piccadilly and Crewe, both with fairly short waits.
My first train was the 13:30 to Blackpool North, which would take me three stops to Manchester Piccadilly. Operated by Northern, it was a lovely, modern train, consisting of six carriages, which I had almost entirely to myself. There were plenty of seats and, even more impressively for an airport service, a decent amount of easily accessible luggage space. However, this was very much the high-point of my journey, which started to go rapidly downhill once I got to Manchester (as an aside, while I had the train largely to myself at Manchester Airport, where it started, they were queuing six deep all along the platform at Manchester Piccadilly, so I was rather glad I was getting off).
The Manchester Airport trains arrive at platform 14 on a high-level spur which is off to one side of the main body of Manchester Piccadilly. My next train, an Avanti West Coast service to London Euston, which would take me as far as Crewe, left from platform 7, down in the main body of the station. This involved another hike, with all my luggage, which I needed to do in eight minutes if I was to catch my train, which left at 13:55. Fortunately, everything went my way and I got on board with a couple of minutes to spare. However, the train was really busy, with pretty much every seat taken. Since it was only 33 minutes to Crewe, I decided to stand in one of the vestibules by the doors. I managed to find a vacant one, spending the journey leaning up against the wall to spare my back any further pain.
I made it to Crewe on time, where my next (and supposedly final) train was due to leave at 14:34, giving me six minutes to make the connection. Fortunately, I know Crewe station a lot better than I do Manchester Piccadilly, so I had no qualms about making this one. That said, I did need to haul myself and my luggage up over the bridge between platforms 5 and 6, where I found the train waiting for me, the Transport for Wales service to Holyhead. Unfortunately, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve had nothing but bad experiences when travelling along the North Wales coast with Transport for Wales and this was no exception, the train consisting of just two carriages. Unsurprisingly, it was standing room only on board, with queues at each door.
I didn’t even try to get on, such was the crush, resigning myself to catching the next train (Transport for Wales runs an hourly service along the coast, about the only thing it does right). I got a flat white from the Gourmet Coffee Bar (the first time I’ve used the one on platform 6, since I normally frequently the larger one on platform 5) before sitting down to reconsider my options.
There was no guarantee that the train in an hour’s time would be any less crowded (or have any more carriages), but there was an earlier train to Chester, which left at 15:00. Although it was another Transport for Wales service, this one just shuttled back and forth between Crewe and Chester and wasn’t anywhere near as busy. What’s more, it was already standing at the platform, so I got on, figuring that at worst, I could pick up the next Holyhead service from Chester. That way, if it was just as crowded, I’d only have to stand for 14 minutes rather than the 37 minutes from Crewe.
You might have worked out by now that I hadn’t done a great job of planning the last leg of my trip. To be honest, having done the journey a few times in years gone by, I’d been rather complacent and just assumed it would work itself out. I’d also forgotten just how shockingly bad public transport can be on a Sunday in large parts of the UK.
By the time I got to Crewe, I was working things out on the fly, my decision making not helped by having been awake for the last 24 hours. On the plus side, I was at least awake and functioning, which was unexpected. On my previous return from Boston at the end of last year, I’d caught an earlier flight, thinking that it would help with my jet lag. On that occasion, I was home by 10:30, having dozed for much of the coach ride from Heathrow to Guildford, but then spent the rest of the day battling waves of drowsiness.
This time around, I was much more awake, which makes me wonder if my jet lag has less to do with when I fly than with how much sleep I get the night before the flight. This time around, I really didn’t have much trouble with jet lag, getting back to my normal routine within a few days. In contrast, at the end of last year, it took me over a week to fully recover. Perhaps it was the 12 hours solid sleep I had in Boston the night before my flight that made all the difference!
Back to my attempts to get to Flint. Compared to the overcrowded service from Crewe along the North Wales coast, the train to Chester was almost empty, so I was able to get a seat, spread out and relax. It also gave me a chance to think about the rest of my journey, since I still needed to get from Flint to my Dad’s house. I’d naively assumed that I would just catch the bus, forgetting that the buses, which run every 30 minutes during the week, are just once every two hours on a Sunday.
Looking at the bus times, I worked out that if I caught the next train to Flint, I’d have a 45-minute wait for the bus. Alternatively, I could catch the same bus from its starting point at Chester bus interchange. That way, not only would I get home at the same time, but I’d swap a 45-minute wait in the cold and rain at Flint for 1¼ hours on a warm, dry bus.
Even better, I was fairly sure that I’d get a seat on the bus, whereas I could have easily ended up standing on a crowded train to Flint. The only downside was that it meant another 10-minute walk, dragging my luggage behind me, from Chester station to the bus interchange. However, I figured it was worth it, so off I went, getting to the bus interchange 15 minutes before my bus was due to leave.
Having boasted of how well I was doing with the jet lag, I hit a wall at 16:00, shortly after getting on the bus. At that point, I’d been awake for about 25 hours, and was really starting to fade, dozing for most of the bus ride. I had one last walk, from the bus station, up the hill to my Dad’s house, where I arrived at 17:30, a mere nine hours after I’d landed at Heathrow and five hours after I’d arrived in Manchester…
That concludes this Travel Spot and the trip as a whole. If you’ve made it this far, thanks for coming along and I hope you enjoyed the journey.
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