Saturday, 23 March 2019

Don't try this at home: flying from Russia

Early last year I saw a 'cheap' return in first class advertised by Lufthansa. Flying first for once in my life was on my bucket list, so my wife and I booked a return, starting from Saint Petersburg. We envisaged doing a three day visit to Saint Petersburg. The itinerary would be:
- Flying by Air Baltic from Amsterdam to Saint Petersburg via Riga, doing a slightly under 24 hour stopover in Riga to see that city.
- Staying in Saint Petersburg for three nights.
- Then flying to Frankfurt in business, and from Frankfurt to Singapore in first.
- Staying some nights in Singapore.
- Then flying to Penang, staying there for five nights.
- Then flying through to Bangkok for another two nights' stay.
- Returning to Frankfurt in first.
- And skipping the last leg from Frankfurt to Saint Petersburg.

So that was the theory. And now we had to apply for a visa. Because we formally had two stays in Russia (one preceding the first flight and one after the last leg), and I was afraid Lufthansa would check that while checking in in Bangkok on the way back, I decided to apply for a double entry transit visa. I even booked two singles from Moscow to somewhere in Europe to complete the story. Foolish me - I had not reckoned with Russian bureaucrats over at VFS global. That is supposed to be a company, but they employ bureaucrats that want to torture Western customers.

'Where's the invitation?' the woman asked to me. 'We don't need one, we're on a transit visa' I replied. She countered: 'you cannot travel on a transit visa. Do you want to stay in the transfer area of the airport for three nights?'. So we left and learned from a friendly guy at a travel agency that we even could not formally apply for a double entry tourist visa because that is meant for visiting neighbouring areas. 

I already thought of forfeiting the entire ticket (of course it was a nonrefundable one) when I retried 'wrapping around' a ticket. I found out that Lufthansa actually had cheaper returns than at the time of booking the original tickets. For 160 euro I could book a 'positioning' return flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt and Frankfurt to Saint Petersburg and back (remember I needed a credible story). In order not to need a visa for Russia, you have to transfer to a different flight within 24 hours. 

The schedule worked, but there was one issue: the positioning flight was on the same plane as the first leg of the ticket to Singapore (Saint Petersburg to Frankfurt). Normally, you would have only some 45 minutes between arrival and departure, but for some reason, these flights have a turnaround time of 1,5 hours. Would that suffice to go through the formalities in Saint Petersburg? The only way would be to try it out. If it wouldn't work, the consequences would be rather disastrous: forfeiting the ticket, but most of all, being stuck in the airport without a visa.

I'll fast forward to Saint Petersburg now. We arrived in time and entered the arrival hall. After some looking around we saw a transfer desk - without people behind it. We asked some official and she said she would request someone to go to the desk. Five minutes later, indeed, someone turned up and took our boarding passes and passports. She said she needed some ten minutes. The clock was ticking. But after ten minutes of waiting and some additional questions she let us through.

Then we had to go through the security channel. A lady apparently was sitting there just to let us through (we were the only transfer passengers at the time). She asked where we came from. 'Frankfurt', my wife replied. And where are you going? 'Frankfurt', I replied. I must admit that this could have triggered a bureaucratic nightmare but it didn't. She stamped our boarding passes and let us through. There was a entire luggage check filter with two people, again, in an otherwise entirely empty space. No issues here. We could enter the departures area, sat down for three minutes and then could board the plane.

The crew (the same one from the onward journey) stared at us in disbelief. We sat down in business class. One steward asked 'voluntarily or involuntarily?', which I could answer with 'voluntarily'. The purser couldn't believe her eyes and said she was dying to hear the story. All in all this experience was much better than we expected after the Russian visa office visit, no one had been unfriendly to us and some of the people we saw were even outright friendly. 

Is this worth a rerun then? No, definitely not. First, we forfeited a few hundred euros in tickets and hotels because of the change in plans, in addition to the additional more than 300 euros for the Lufthansa positioning tickets. Second, we had taken quite a big risk. Third, we like flying, but not that much that we enjoy three intra-European flights before the intercontinental leg. If you fancy flying first and don't have the points, watch out for regular offers from Western Europe. Months after booking my own first class tickets I booked a colleague on an even cheaper offer from Copenhagen. 

Two other points: although it's customary to leave the last leg 'as is' and just walk away from the airport, there is a case in which Lufthansa has tried to charge a recalculated ticket fee for that. I would deem that a small risk though. The other thing is: think about your luggage. My wife and I travel without checked-in luggage so we can always walk away from the plane. Imagine yourself trying to get your bag back which is still supposed to be loaded on the onward flight...

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Venice revisited

Being a fan of Venice and of travel hacking, here are a few tips that help you save on a trip to Venice and make the most out of it:

  • Venice is not an expensive city to fly to. That is because of the massive competition on this destination. It should be relatively easy to get there for 100 euro for a return, even on a legacy carrier. Beware, though the likes of easyJet will fly you to the main airport, of course Ryanair chose Treviso as its base. There's probably nothing wrong with Treviso, but it's not as well connected with Venice as Marco Polo airport. 
  • You've heard about the hordes of tourists at the San Marco square and the train station? Yes, they are there. But if you go in low season, things get much better. Our last visit late January: there was no high water (acqua alta), and there were no queues at the San Marco basilica. What's even better: if you go to the San Marco square in the evening, there will hardly be anyone over there. 
  • With an overload of hotels on the main island and the surrounding islands such as Giudecca and Murano, prices can be extremely attractive in low season. We stayed at the absolutely wonderful Hilton Molino Stucky for less than 100 euro per night per room (yes, we did book over half a year in advance). The hotel threw in a view from the sixth floor to the main island on our Hilton Honors gold status too (not to mention several other benefits).
  • If you're a regular visitor, you can buy a 'local' transport card which will allow you to take a water bus ride for only 1,40 euro instead of the usual 7,50. This requires you to invest a hefty 100 euro though. It's an investment for five years - for an extensive guide take a look here.
  • The best things in life are (almost) free: once you have that ACTV water bus pass (either the regular or the tourist one) you can take lines 1 or 2 to have that wonderful boat trip over the Canal Grande (if you start on Piazzale Roma, you have a chance of getting a seat). Also consider a trip around the east side of the main island, which shows the Giardini and the remainders of industrial locations and less glamarous parts of Venice (if it's your cup of tea).
  • Of course, you can visit the tower on the San Marco square if there is no queue (there wasn't end of January) and at 8 euro it's not even really expensive and definitely the view is worthwhile. You can also take the boat (line 2) to San Giorgio Maggiore and take the elevator to take in breathtaking views for only 5 euro. 
  • The rooftop of the commercial center Fondacio dei Tedeschi can be visited for free if you book in advance. Definitely worthwile with a view from above on the Rialto bridge (much better than trying to walk over it - the one location I would recommend you to stay away from). You can find all relevant information here
  • This one is definitely not for free, but even if you're not interested in art or architecture, it is strongly advisable to visit the Biennale, usually from May to November. There are two locations: Arsenale and Giardini. Especially the first one is worth the visit in itself: a huge, cathedral-like factory building originally used for building boats in an early form of mass production.
  • Download apps such as The Fork and Tripadvisor on your mobile phone. In low season, you can get discounts of up to 50% on your restaurant bill. Check the quality of the restaurant based on the review score in order not to get disappointed. During our last visit, we had dinner with on average a 40% discount.
  • Finally, the best way to explore Venice is to walk! A few hundred meters from the San Marco square or the Rialto bridge, there might be virtually no one left and you can explore the streets, alleys and canals of Venice on your own. 

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Cheap London breaks

Brexit or no Brexit - London is a great place to visit. With my newly acquired Avios (Qatar airways flights credited to my BA accounts) I thought it would be nice to book a summer weekend trip to London. Now I don't fancy 2 star hotels in Earl's Court anymore. But as the more upmarket places can be outrageously expensive, I started looking for a less touristy area, and found it in Canary Wharf.

The Marriott West India Quay (to be called Marriott Canary Wharf from 2019) seems to be an excellent hotel. During weekdays, it is priced at business rates. But weekend rates are bargains for a 5 star London property. Off-peak (January) rates start at just over a hundred pounds. But my 2 nights stay in August including breakfast would only cost 254 GBP, and when booking a generous 12% cashback rate was offered at Topcashback.

Now Canary Wharf is very conveniently located near London City Airport. Most people searching low cost flights will end up in Stansted, Luton and the likes, but these airports from hell need not always be the cheapest option. Factor in considerable cost (and time) for public transport, both in your home country and especially in London. From the Netherlands, there are a few airlines offering flights to London City Airport, notably British Airways and Flybe.

I tend to combine singles if it's convenient, so in case of my January London trip one leg is with BA from Rotterdam and the other is with Flybe from London City to Amsterdam. For my summer trip, I decided to use my Avios, but only for one leg: the more expensive one from London City to Rotterdam. The cash rate for the Rotterdam - London City leg made using Avios a waste of points.

What is more, if you fancy planning last minute trips, cash fares on business routes such as Rotterdam - London City will probably be prohibitively expensive. You might stand a chance getting an award flight for 4,000 or 4,500 Avios plus 22 euros in taxes instead. If you make the comparison, you can imagine that it might be worthwhile stacking up a few Avios in some Groupon deal just in case.

The good folks at regularly notify their readers of such deals, especially in Spain. You need to make preparations such as timely opening an Iberia Avios account and a BA one too, and do quite some administration to get it sorted out - don't expect to do this and fly a week after. It might some months to prepare. The faster way would be to buy Avios directly from BA, but wait until they are on offer, otherwise you'll pay an offensively high amount for them.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Doha stop-over, or: how to survive the sandbox

Museum roof
Doha is the home base of Qatar Airways. The government has decided to introduce some sights they regard worth seeing, including a rebuilt Souq and a few museums. From the airport, you can take a taxi into the city center, which costs 50 Qatari Rial (approx. 12,50 euro). Qatar Airways has prolonged its free stop-over program, by which you can get a 4 or 5 star hotel for a night for free (excluding breakfast).
Museum of Islamic Art
As we had a 15 hour stopover during daytime, we decided to get into the city center and visit the Museum of Islamic Art. That museum is well worth the visit, exhibiting a beautiful, though (chronologically and geographically) diverse collection of artefacts, in an impressive building. Entrance is for free, and the museum has a cafe with reasonably priced food and drinks, and a shop with less reasonably priced stuff.
Honestly, do you want to see this giant pearl?
But otherwise, to be honest, I wouldn't bother again to visit the city. Basically, it has the feel of a suburb. It's usually insanely hot (we once got offered a terrace heater when we sat outside at nights and it was 'only' 24 degrees centigrade) and it hasn't got a 'soul' (at least we haven't discovered it). Qatari people are doing their shopping, followed by their nannies and porters as if they were their shadows. But if you fancy see a giant pearl, well, it maybe something for you...

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Appraisal of Qatar Airways A320 business class cabin

My wife and I had the opportunity to test the Qatar Airways A320 business class product on a flight from Prague to Doha and vice versa. Qatar Airways flies on narrow body planes from many European destinations, and although we prefer the wide bodies, in particular Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 for their comfort (high cabin pressure, more space in the cabin), Qatar still manages to offer a more than decent product on its narrow body fleet.
High tea, taken literally

The business class cabin on the A320 comprises of 12 full flat seats in a 2 - 2 setting slightly geared towards the windows for improved privacy. The seat is somewhat similar to the seat found on the Qatar Airways 777 fleet (obviously not the revamped QSuite), but it is narrower which you will notice especially if you try to sleep.

Noticeably, Qatar still manages to effectively offer their dine on demand service throughout the flight, which is especially an amazing feat of the crew, who has to work in the cramped galley on the plane's front. There is only one, also very cramped, toilet directly behind the cockpit. With very few exception, Qatar has excellent crews who are really focused on getting you the best service on such planes.

Obviously, the Qatar business product is infinitely better than what European airlines offer on their short haul fleet. Having said that, the airlines will very rarely employ their short haul fleet for such long flights (in this case, around 6 hours). The verdict: recommended, however if you have a chance of getting on a wide body instead, you should definitely do that. By now, Prague has two daily connections with Doha, one of which is served by a Boeing Dreamliner.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

7 pitfalls when using Grab

Grab is the south-east Asian variant of Uber, and actually owned by Uber. It's a great way to get around in e.g. Thailand, but beware: it's easy, but not always the best option available. In this blog post, I list 7 pitfalls to avoid when using Grab:

  1. Remember that data roaming can be excessively expensive. Prepare and buy a local sim to use Grab - you need an active data connection to use the service.
  2. The Grab app is slightly different from the Uber app. You can, for instance, not give tips via the app. Keep some change for the driver.
  3. You can call the driver or the driver can call you - but that short call might be easily more expensive than the fare itself if you use roaming.
  4. Grab can be more expensive than a taxi. Keep a close eye on the fares. Especially fares to outside city limits will easily cost you more money than getting a taxi and agree a price beforehand.
  5. You can easily get a Grab out of town, but it's much harder to get one back. 'All our drivers are busy' is Grab speak for no driver being in the vicinity of your location. You're at the mercy of taxi drivers now!
  6. The base fare for a ride in a city may be much lower than one outside a town, easily differing a factor seven. Also a reason to be aware of the fact that a taxi may be cheaper.
  7. You can either pay by credit card or in cash. To use a credit card, obviously, you should enter your card details in the Grab app. 
Bottom line: Grab is a great way to get around in South-East Asia, reducing the risk of getting conned. However, count in local 'taxi wars' - we almost got forced out of a car in the middle of a high way because our driver was scared of taxi drivers at the bus station where we were heading...

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Opaque site of the week: Secret Escapes

No, that's not a positive signal. I generally like Secret Escapes, as it usually has attractive prices for hotels, although you need to be careful about their location (before you know it, you're near a highway instead of a city center). So I just took a look what they offer in Florence, Italy. And they have this amazing price: 50 euro for a room in a four star hotel near Santa Maria Novella railway station.

At least, that's what I thought. It turns out that they switched to per person prices. That's a nasty habit in the legacy travel industry (sorry, TUI and the likes). You cannot book a hotel room for a single person for that price, obviously. So the room will cost at least double (Secret Escapes charges a booking fee based on the total cost of the booking). Yes, the per person price is mentioned quite clearly, it's just a change one doesn't expect and therefore might miss.