Sunday, 24 March 2019

Appraisal of Lufthansa first class

Lufthansa first class chairs

So, after going through the tiring (yes it's our own fault) detour of Saint Petersburg, we finally boarded our A380 to experience first class. And to be honest, being spoilt by the rather unbelievable service of Qatar Airways business class, this was a bit underwhelming experience. Yes, you have even more room, and I had seven hours of solid sleep which I had never managed before (ok, one time after being awake for 40 hours, on my way to Sydney in economy).

The food is quite amazing, the wines are unbelievable and having two bathrooms for eight passengers is also a huge luxury. And what kind of bathrooms they are - for on a plane, they are massive: several meters long, cotton towels, more than enough room to change into your pyjamas (provided too) without colliding with the walls. Yes, that's miles away from economy, or rather: just the stairs right before the first class cabin.

I don't do reviews with photos of all dinner courses and showing menus of the entertainment system - personally as a reader I wouldn't really care. What I want to highlight is a few positives and a few negatives. Starting with the latter: when boarding the plane, the stewardesses were busy with the five family members from South America travelling together and taking selfies in the first interior. It slightly distracted them from the other passengers.

Stairway to... hell? No, premium economy

Service made a bit of a random impression (will I get a welcome drink or will they forget me?). On the positive side, on both the outbound and incoming flights, we had enthusiastic, warm crews who really made the impression they cared about their passengers. They were also not as young as usual on Qatar Airways flights. It gives a nice touch to your service if the stewardesses have had a long career and made it to first because of their experience.

Stellar white cholate dome desert

So, would I pay double the price of a (rock bottom) business class ticket again to experience first? No, I don't think so. The step from economy to business class is just so much more meaningful in terms of added comfort than the step from business to first. I might think differently though if the added cost would be 50% or less.

Frankfurt: an airport to avoid

A few years ago my wife and I flied via Frankfurt and discovered that some big airports also 'feel' big, which means that they're terrible to navigate. I regularly use special assistance and they managed to let us wait at three transfer points, often without sanitary facilities. There were security agents that thought it would be funny to ask me if I couldn't act any faster (believe me, I'm not that slow in handling my luggage). In a few words: my first visits of Frankfurt was underwhelming.

Enter the new visits, on the way to Saint Petersburg, Singapore and back from Bangkok. You would expect some courtesy when flying first (which is not to say that I expected to be handled as cattle when flying economy, but I hope you catch my drift). But asking either Lufthansa or security staff about the location of the first class lounges did not reveal much usable information. At one of the business lounges of Lufthansa, however, there was a woman who clearly knew what she was doing.

She helped us through some of the stuff needed to get a car transfer between legs (a prerogative of first class passengers). This woman was the kind of person that you know in the blink of an eye that will help you in any situation in a very adequate manner. Such people are rare - it would be great having someone like that as a personal assistant but I guess that's above my budget.

Anyway, returning from Saint Petersburg there was indeed a giant Porsche car waiting for us. But it brought us to a terminal where we had to go through a security check because of originating at a 'dirty' airport. That's where things went wrong. Customs officers shouting at us, security personnel sending us away while specifically asking for a certain lounge. Well, Saint Petersburg was a heaven of friendliness in comparison to Frankfurt.

When we returned to Frankfurt from Bangkok, we were up for a surprise again. When my wife tried to guide me to the special assistance person working there to take a 'free ride' with the elevator, she basically exploded. 'No! Via the stairs!', she shouted at us. I explained to Lufthansa that a little friendliness wouldn't hurt - I was using my cane visibly. They compensated us with 100 euro for a dinner, which is a nice gesture - but it doesn't take away the problem.

I've the luxury of never having flown via Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle. I can imagine that they would be similar to Frankfurt. Far and middle east airports are usually a haven of hospitality (in terms of special assistance at least). We received a personal guide both on arrival and on departure in Singapore and Bangkok as part of the first class service - why doesn't Lufthansa provide that same service in their home terminal?

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...