To Europe on airberlin, S7, Aeroflot, American, DB and Trenitalia
Back in late August/early September, my wife and I went to Europe for three different things: visit family in Moscow, attend an industry conference in Dusseldorf and go to a friend’s wedding in Italy’s Amalfi Coast. Because this trip wasn’t planned around all of these events from the start, and because my wife didn’t know until August whether she’d be able to join me for all of these legs, I ended up buying an amalgamation of tickets on various One World carriers, with the most expensive ones being bought on miles, so that I could return them if need be.
Adding to the excitement was the fact that some of the tickets were on airberlin, a carrier that declared insolvency and had to be given a taxpayer-funded lifeline to stay operational.
Here is the itinerary for the trip:
8/31: LAX-SFO and SFO-DUS in J (combination of AA and AB using Saver Awards @ 57.5k miles/person + $11 in taxes)
From DUS we went straight to Berlin by train (4.5 hour journey)
9/3: SXF – SVO in Y on Aeroflot (Aeroflot Bonus redemption at 12.5k per ticket + $65 in taxes)
9/12: DME – DUS in J on S7 (initially bought as Y for $120/ticket but upgraded to J at the gate)
9/14: DUS – FLR in Y on AB (Saver Awards @ 12.5k/ticket)
9/15 – 9/21: drove from Florence, via Tuscany and Rome, to Sorrento
9/21: Trenitalia train from Naples to Rome
9/22: FCO-ORD-LAX on American in Y (SWUs didn’t clear)
All told, this trip cost me 140,000 AAdvantage Miles, 25,000 Aeroflot Bonus Miles and $1,150 for revenue flights and various taxes.
Thursday, August 31, 2017
LAX – SFO
AA 6042 ERJ 175
A couple of days prior to this flight, I started feeling unwell, and by the time we had to wake up at 3:30 in the “morning”, I was feeling full blown sick and really not looking forward to “enjoying” San Francisco for 10 hours.
We arrived at LAX right around 5am, quickly checked in and proceeded to the remote gates where we settled into the newly renovated Admirals Club. It was small, clean and stocked with breakfast items. The front desk agent was friendly and told me about some of the other renovations going on, and how they are way behind schedule.
We boarded on time, taking our 3D and 3F and departed. Flight was uneventful and when we landed in SFO, we quickly made our way to the BART station and to San Francisco.
The weather in SF was very nice, sunny and warm. I wish I wasn’t walking around with a 99 degree fever to enjoy it properly. I was told by my wife that we had a nice lunch near the water and that we, apparently, did other things, but I can’t honestly remember anything but the gnawing sensation of wanting to die.
By around 5pm we were back at the airport, and made way to the Cathay Lounge that was featured favorably in many reviews. Having seen The Pier first-hand, I was perhaps anticipating more than was reasonable, so the disappointment was swift. The CX lounge dragons scoffed at our AB boarding passes, but once I produced my ExPlat card, they bit their lips and let us in. We witnessed a similar reaction when we tried to put an order in with the Noodle Bar, even being told that this isn’t for airberlin passengers. I raised my voice a little bit right then, and they quickly retreated back to being polite and “remembering” that we were actually also AA ExPlats and not just AB J pax.
A nice long shower before the flight helped me feel a little more human. We walked to the gate where boarding was already well under way. In a weird turn of protocol, the same AB agent who checked me in at SFO (fairly politely) asked me to produce my passport at the gate and was quite a bit less pleasant about it. Apparently, because I renewed my passport, something wasn’t matching in his system, but after a few strokes of the keys, he let me go.
SFO – DUS
AB 7393 Airbus A330-200
I was anticipating an apathetic crew, and I would not have blamed them for feeling down given the circumstances of their employment. To my delight, we found the FAs in Business to be pleasant and attentive. Our seats were 5E and 5F, in the middle, and I’ve seen them being referred to as honeymoon seats because they angle towards each other and allow for close proximity. I didn’t think they were all that close, but they’re definitely better for a couple than two strangers.
Much has been written about AB’s J product, especially about how narrow and short the beds are. I am 6’2″ and I was a bit worried about this, but frankly the bed was fine for someone my height. It’s on the shorter side, yes, but I was able to fully stretch out. I was a little bit crammed in the shoulders, so my verdict is that for someone with a wider upper body, this would have been the biggest concern.
The pros: food and service, as well as the seat/bed that was surprisingly more comfortable than I had imagined
The cons: AVOD had a very limited selection of movies and shows and the air in the plane was extra dry (perhaps I was overly sensitive to it, given my state of health).
Friday, September 1, 2017
The landing was very choppy, as I guess is normal for Dusseldorf. My wife, who is very sensitive to turbulence, was quite unhappy with this ending of the flight and it took her some time to recover afterwards.
After we deplaned, we stayed behind a bit so that she could reconstitute herself after the landing and by the time we proceeded to passport control, we found ourselves lost and going through closed doors and weird corridors, ushered by airport workers who didn’t speak English but either had good intentions or wanted to have a laugh at our expense.
Finally, we found passport control with absolutely no line and two bored agents who quickly processed us. Grabbing our bags, we took the very futuristic airport train to the DB station to await our ride to Berlin.
Dusseldorf Airport Station – Berlin Hauptbanhof
What can I say? German ICE trains are amazing. We bought regular economy tickets but my wife thought I splurged for business class because of how great it was. Clean, with attention to detail, sparkling bathrooms with some cool ambient light and a nice and reasonably-priced restaurant car with healthy food options.
Four and a half hours on a train after an overnight flight from the West Coast is no joke, but it felt easy on this train. We read, talked, listened to music and gazed out of the window, seeing Germany fly by us at 230 kmh.
We arrived in Berlin around 11 pm and took an old Mercedes taxi to Hilton Berlin, which I booked on points for two nights. As the hotel was full that night, the agent apologized for not being able to give us a Diamond upgrade to a bigger room, which was fine as we were ready to sleep on the floor at this point.
Saturday, September 2 – Sunday, September 3
We made the most of our 36 hours in Berlin. Though I’ve been there before, it was the first time for my wife and we made sure to see the main tourist highlights, as well as do things I didn’t get to do during my previous trips. A month prior to our travels, I reserved access to the Reichstag Dome right around sunset, and this decision didn’t disappoint as we got to see Berlin from the top at its most beautiful.
After a great meal with friends and a stop at Tausend, one of my favorite bars there, we retired for the night. Amazingly, I was feeling much better than the day before. I think a potato-heavy diet was the cure.
The Hilton was amazing in every way. The location couldn’t be beat. The design was modern, yet had that feel of old Europe. I am glad we stayed there and not at the newly-opened Waldorf, which I briefly considered. Also, the breakfast was top notch, both in the restaurant and the lounge.
Sunday, September 3
SXF – SVO
Aeroflot 2313 Airbus A320
My wife had some orphan SU Bonus miles that I decided to use on this flight, more so to prevent them from expiring or becoming less valuable. The actual ticket would have been $170 or so per person, but the actual out of pocket was reduced to $60 in taxes (which is outrageous for Russia, by the way!).
We were almost late to the airport, because it’s nearly impossible to get a taxi in Berlin on a Sunday morning. The line for taxis at the Hilton was 20+ people long and despite the hotel’s best efforts to get more cabs, we waited for over 40 minutes before getting into ours. This is what life without Uber or an adequate number of evenly-distributed cabs looks like!
SXF is an AWFUL airport and I hate it in every way possible. What makes it even worse is how Russians line up for boarding, considering the cattle pen-like setup that each gate features. People were literally climbing over one another, cutting into the line, and making more chaos out of an already bad situation. We fly to Russia regularly and are used to this, but I saw a Japanese chap who was experiencing this for the firs time and he had a look of sheer horror on his face.
Our Economy seats were window and aisle (15D and 15F), and luckily we didn’t have anyone sitting in between. The flight was all of 2 hours, and was quite pleasant despite a lack of AVOD or WiFi. The crew was efficient and friendly enough and managed to serve us lunch and beverages.
We landed early, made our way through an empty Sheremetyevo airport, collected our bags and met up with our relatives. It’s worth noting that the new SVO is a very nice airport, especially when not overly crowded.
Monday, September 4 – Tuesday, September 12
We spent a week in Moscow, visiting family and seeing friends, checking out some new sights, restaurants and bars and going out into the countryside for some fresh air and relaxation.
Tuesday, September 12
DME – DUS
S7 Airlines 991 Boeing 737-800
I booked two basic, HBO-style fares on S7’s website a few months ago and then called their Elite phone line to pick exit row economy seats that are reserved for their elites. Thankfully, my Emerald status was recognized and these seats were allocated to us at no extra charge (they would have charged $35 for them otherwise). I also purchased one additional checked luggage, because OW status on this fare gave me just one checked bag at 32kg.
DME is an inconvenient airport for those who live in the northern and western reaches of Moscow, and it took us a couple of hours to get there (first by taxi to the AeroExpress station and then another 40 minutes to the actual airport). It’s also starting to show its age vs. SVO and even VKO. Once considered Moscow’s premier airport, it has been a victim of a brutal terrorist attack and under-investment in recent years. With the collapse of one its two main tenants, Transaero, Domodedovo’s fortunes aren’t likely to be revived any time soon (as long as it remains in private hands).
We checked in and were sort of told that we could use Fast Lane to go through security. This lane is reserved for diplomats and Business Class passengers, but the only identification of that is the Priority sticker on the Boarding Pass, which I had due to my status (and my wife didn’t).
Anyway, I flashed my pass, and the security dragon ushered us through. We walked for a couple of minutes through a very empty and semi-dark corridor – definitely creepy. Finally, we reached a small security station, where the agent was busy yelling at a couple with two kids, and everyone was having some sort of a mental breakdown. We waited to be invited to scan our stuff and go through metal detectors, but hardly any attention was paid to us (the only other people in this area). We threw our bags on the belt, went through the detector and picked up our stuff without any acknowledgement from the security folks. Safe!
At passport control, however, they decided to give us a hard time. The customs official (a male) decided to give my wife a hard time for going through the VIP corridor, given that she did not have PRIORITY stamped on her BP. When I came over to show him mine, he became angry that I actually had one and yelled at me to step back behind the red line. The guy was clearly on a power trip, but without much power. I was processed by a very pleasant young woman who offered no such hassles. Eventually, both my wife and I made it through and walked over to the S7 Priority Lounge.
The lounge was renovated recently and was pretty pleasant visually, but super stuffy. The AC, if it existed, made as much difference as a small army of coughing ants would have if they were asked to provide air circulation. On a Tuesday afternoon in September, S7 had a TON of flights leaving for eastern European vacation destinations, including Cyprus, Bulgaria and the like. All of these flights left within an hour of one another and the lounge emptied out.
There was a decent hot buffet, with coffee, tea and soft drinks as well as Efes beer on tap. Espresso drinks from a barista cost extra and I assume nobody ever bothered to order from him, so he left and never returned.
After about an hour and a half in the lounge, we walked over to our gate, which was actually just an exit to the buses. There was a HUGE crush of people for the Economy line and an empty Business/Premium line, so we fortunately skipped the madness. Right when we handed our passes to the agent, he gave us two new ones – 1A and 1B. Boom! Upgraded to Business on a $120 basic Economy fare – thanks Emerald! This also meant that we would avoid the bus and take a Mercedes van that was reserved just for Business passengers.
Business Class on S7 is akin to something you would see on domestic routes in the US – a dedicated cabin, with bigger, more comfortable seats in a 2+2 configuration. It’s not EuroBusiness that most airlines operate in the EU, and it’s a plus for sure.
In each seat, the crew already placed an amenity kit, blanket and pillow. While the last two items weren’t anything special, I did find the kit to be fun – especially the pouch with its graphic print and the slippers, which I kept because they are wide enough for my feet.
The FAs weren’t as pleasant or as polished as they are on Aeroflot. We were mostly served by a female FA who served us lunch and beverages, but didn’t bother to provide refills unless asked. I also noticed that they didn’t come up to recognize my status and thank me, something that SU FAs do without fail, even when I had lower Delta status and was flying in Economy.
The flight was quick – just over two hours, and we landed in sunny Dusseldorf in the early hours of the afternoon. I always geek out at new airports, and today was no different, as we taxied past an Iraqi Airways A320 and an Emirates A380, which provided quite the contrast.
We cleared customs, grabbed our bags and went to the train station to catch our ride to Bonn, where we would spend the next two nights while I attended my conference in nearby Cologne.
Unlike the ICE experience, the regional train was much less comfortable, especially with two suitcases in tote. Frankly, I am not sure how a train that picks up passengers at a major international airport is not equipped with proper luggage holds!
An hour and change later (and with sunny weather being replaced by windy and cloudy one), we arrived in Bonn, a city which once represented a Cold War frontier as the capital of West Germany. It’s funny how some cities just have an aura about them, and Bonn is certainly one. Even though it’s small, you can just feel that it’s an important historical town and that big things happened here. I was fascinated by its diplomatic presence in the 1950s – 1990s and read a lot about Little America, which was a neighborhood of 14,000+ American citizens who lived, worked or supported the American Embassy in Germany. Every other country in the world had their German diplomatic missions there and while none maintain embassies there, most have big consulates or property remaining from those days.
We checked into Hilton Bonn, a nice, if architecturally unremarkable hotel on the banks of the Rhine River. One big downside about this hotel – it does not have an adequate number of elevators and because our key card didn’t work right away, I spent over 30 minutes shuttling to and from the reception desk, and waiting for the lifts to come. Ultimately, we got our upgraded corner room, which shared a semi-private two-story living area with another room. The views of the river from the room were great and there was plenty of space but having an additional “turret-like” second floor with 360 degree views was amazing and the comfy furniture allowed for some relaxed reading and time-lapse photo taking. We were also treated to a view of a beautiful rainbow over the river.
The breakfast at the hotel was on point – delicious, with many different buffet choices and with good service. Being able to walk right onto the river bank and walk off some of the pastries was also clutch.
Overall, Bonn left a very favorable impression.
Thursday, September 14
DUS – FLR
airberlin 8878 Bombardier Q-400
I started getting a bit worried about this flight, because during the conference, hundreds of people didn’t make the opening as AB cancelled most of its long-haul flights due to a massive number of pilots calling out sick. Without additional options, I just held my breath and crossed my fingers that our short-haul flight would be fine.
After meeting my uncle and some relatives in Cologne for delicious pizza, we took the train to the airport and checked in at an empty AB counter. Recognizing my status, we received an invitation to the contractor lounge and proceeded there. The lounge was a mess, to be honest, and while it had some food and some drinks, it wasn’t somewhere you’d want to spend hours in. With the recent closure of AB’s own lounge, everyone was shoved into this small space, in addition to the Priority Pass card holders. The staff clearly didn’t care anymore, which was evident by how dirty the floors and bathrooms were. We picked up some hot tea and some bottles of water and promptly walked over to the gate, where we were told there would be a small delay.
The flight itself was uneventful. There were a few semi-famous Germans flying to Florence and the flight attendants spent a lot of time talking to them, but I didn’t know who they were.
Florence was pitch dark by the time we landed and because this was an intra-Schengen flight, we didn’t have to deal with passport control after collecting our bags. The line to get a taxi was insanely long and there were no Ubers to speak of. I was starting to really appreciate what other countries have with these on-demand ride services as waiting for a taxi at midnight wasn’t my idea of great fun.
Finally, we were on our way to the Hilton Metropole, where we checked in quickly and were in bed within 15 minutes. Florence was waiting in the morning!
Friday, September 15 – Friday, September 22
Florence – Siena(-ish) – Rome – Sorrento – Rome
The view from our room in the morning was splendid – we could see the ancient red roofs and domes in the distance. The breakfast, however, was less amazing and, frankly, disappointing for Italy. The silver lining is that we didn’t linger for too long in the restaurant and instead checked out, stored our bags and boarded the free (great Hilton perk) shuttle to central Florence.
I hate crowds, having lived in Manhattan and London for a combined 9 years, and avoid them at all cost. Florence was just one massive crowd and I hated it. I’ve seen enough beautiful architecture and art over the years that I wasn’t overwhelmed by anything Florence threw my way. The best part was leaving the center and going up into the hills towards Piazzale Michaelangelo, where we found a gelato festival in full swing.
After a day of walking around Florence (and grinding my teeth), we took the shuttle back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and went to the rental car area at the airport to get our ride – a white Fiat 500!
With torrential rain accompanying our journey, we weaved our way out of Florence and took aim towards rural Tuscany, and specifically La Bagnia Golf Resort & Spa, a Curio hotel. The road that leads to the hotel, off the main autostrade, is small and has a definitive village feel to it. I am glad that we had Google Maps to guide us, because there is now way I would have believed that this patch of dirt would lead us to a Hilton resort.
La Bagnia is fairly new, having opened in early 2017 after Hilton purchased an entire village and renovated it to become a Curio property. The check in was friendly and we were given an upgrade to a suite in the Medici house near the main building. The porter took us and our suitcases in a golf cart to the doorstep and brought everything up for us. The service at this hotel was consistently great and professional, making it clear that La Bagnia is working hard on establishing a top-notch reputation.
We had dinner on the terrace of the hotel restaurant and thought it was delicious, if pricey. The real treat was going to sleep there a few hours later. The hotel is in the middle of nowhere and with zero noise and fresh air, sleeping with wide-open windows to the sound of the rain was a rare treat!
Unlike it’s cousin in Florence, La Bagnia serves an amazing breakfast, similar to what we had in Bonn and Berlin. Local ingredients are interspersed with other delicious items and the coffee was served in a big pot!
The hotel grounds are fabulous. They consist of multiple buildings in the traditional Tuscan style (this was a real village, after all), complete with a church, gazebos and viewing platforms. Roomba-like lawn mowers were at work across the acres on which the hotel sits and in the distance, sounds of golf balls leaving their tees reminded me that this was a golf resort (the largest in Europe, apparently).
It was too chilly to enjoy the pool, so after a nice walk we got into our car and drove to Banfi winery for lunch and wine tastings. Post-Banfi, we detoured for a couple of hours to Siena before returning to our hotel.
On Sunday, after breakfast and some walking around and lounging, we continued our journey towards Rome, where we had planned to spend just one night before going onward to Amalfi. I was excited for our stay at the Rome Cavalieri, a Waldorf resort, which I snagged for 60,000 points just a few weeks before our trip. Driving a car in Rome was a scary prospect, but I think my experience of driving in LA, London and New York made it less of an ordeal than what I had imagined, but still a trip.
We arrived at the hotel an hour or so before sunset and after self-parking the car (for 5 euros), went to check in at the executive lounge/desk. We were given champagne while our room was being assigned, which was a nice touch, reminiscent of our experience in Conrad Tokyo. The hotel lobby is gorgeous, in a classic (if gaudy) Italian style with statues and paintings depicting the Renaissance era.
Our room, on the 5th floor, was absolutely stunning, with a beautiful bathroom and Ferragamo toiletries. The terrace, which overlooked the hotel grounds, opened up to an absolutely surreal view of central Rome, with the Vatican just to the right and Circus Maximus straight ahead. As the sun set over the city, we were treated to a life-changing turning of the colors, and we couldn’t help but open a bottle of prosecco that we bought at Banfi to celebrate this experience.
My status entitled us to (yet another) welcome drink at lobby bar, while the last shuttle for the center left at 8pm, so we had to rush ourselves to ensure we too advantage of both of these things 🙂
We spent a wonderful evening in Rome, a city which I previously didn’t love much, but one that offered me its best self this time around.
In the morning, we ate at the pool-side restaurant (Waldorf doesn’t offer free breakfast to Hilton elites anymore, but we were given the option to buy it at a 50% discount, which we took advantage of). We were frankly so stuffed from all the food we’ve been eating that we could have easily skipped this meal, but as this was our last upscale Hilton stay in Europe, we decided to indulge.
Our friends asked everyone to be in Sorrento by noon in order to take private boats to Capri, so we couldn’t linger in this hotel much longer and jetted out of there, and out of Rome, as quickly as we could. We had a couple of hundred kilometers to drive and not much time for any delays or detours.
We barely made it to the meeting point in time, as the traffic in Amalfi was absolutely insane and the last 30 kilometers took an hour to drive.
The next three days were spent with friends in Capri, Sorrento and Positano. This is a beautiful part of the world and we wished we had more time to enjoy it. Though I had initially booked the Hilton Sorrento Palace, I decided that we wanted to stay closer to the water and not pay 350 euros per night for another Hilton experience. Instead, we stayed at Marina Grande Residence, a boutique hotel right by the water. It was freshly renovated, with a good bed, strong AC (too strong in my mind) and a great manager. With a small grocery shop nearby, we indulged in fresh bread, mozzarella di bufala and prosciutto for breakfast, at prices not exceeding 7 euros!
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end and we had to start making our way back to Rome to catch a Friday morning flight to Chicago. We arranged for a transfer from the hotel to Naples and then took a Trenitalia high speed train to Rome Termini, from where we hopped (barely!) on the Leonardo Express to the airport.
I want to say that all of this was seamless, but of course it wasn’t. Our transfer driver didn’t touch the steering wheel with the palm of his hand once! He drove exclusively using his elbows and knees, while talking to the police on the phone, trying to resolve an issue with a towed Vespa. The train from Naples, while super nice and fast was filled with phone-talking locals. Our neighbor jumped out of his seat every time his phone rang and paced up and down the car, talking pretty loudly (competing, in fact, with others for loudness). And we ran and barely made our last train to the airport, which was no small feat with two suitcases.
The cherry, however, was taken by the last stretch of travel – from the FCO Airport to the FCO Hilton Garden Inn, a hotel so close to the airport, you could almost (almost!) walk. As I ranted about before in my post about signage in FCO, the Italians struggle mightily in the visual aids department and this time was no different. There is, apparently, a free HGI shuttle, but no mention is made in the app, site or emails from the hotel about where to find it. So, logically, we followed signs to Ground Transportation and then to Shuttles/Buses – all of this with two heavy suitcases. After a 20 minute walk from the train, up escalators and down some elevators, we were told by another bus drive that the HGI shuttle picks people up three levels up at departure. Because who needs signs, right?
I didn’t want to back-track and be proven wrong, so we hopped into a taxi and I asked the driver to take us this very specific hotel and showed him my phone to make sure he saw the address. Instead, he started yelling at me, demanding that I tell him “1 or 2” and saying he needed to know this now. I looked at the address and the street or building number was “2” so that’s what I told him. He wheeled out onto the autostrade and got into the middle lane. Strange…the hotel was only 4km from the terminal, why would he do this. About 6-8 minutes in, he started putting the address into his GPS and I realized that he was putting in the wrong address in central Rome. I quickly interjected, telling him that he passed our hotel and he became furious and started screaming that I should have told him that the hotel was in Fiumicino and not in Rome. How the hell should I know the difference, I asked him? All I need to provide him is the name of the hotel and in the name, it had the word “airport”. I even tried to show him the address, but he chose to scream at me instead.
What should have been a 5 minute hop turned into a 30 minute scream fest and a 35 euro fare. As he pulled up to the hotel, he literally threw our stuff out and said that he didn’t need our money and that we were wrong. Go figure. I still paid him 15 euros, at which point he said “I am sorry, we were both wrong.”
Friday, September 22
FCO – ORD – LAX
American Airlines 111 (on both legs), with Boeing 777-200 and Boeing 737-800
This HGI was nothing special. Clean, full of Americans, efficient. We had a semi-edible dinner, slept well and after a mediocre breakfast took the free shuttle (which was, of course, marked as Staff Shuttle and if I didn’t ask, I would have assumed it was for crews only) to the airport.
Thankfully, we had access to Priority check in as the crush of passengers was overwhelming in Economy. Our SWUs didn’t clear, but we did have an empty middle seat in MCE, so the situation was quite comfortable. The flight didn’t feel long and before we knew it, we landed in O’Hare.
The best part about this flight was sampling the newly opened Flagship Lounge. It was sublime and definitely the best American Flagship experience to date (we later sampled the lounge in JFK, and it wasn’t even close to being the same). The decor, the food, the showers – they were all sublime! I am glad we had a couple of hours to kill there and I was thankful for my status at that moment.
The last leg of the flight, to LA, was brutal. I hate the 738 product, as the seats are uncomfortable, the windows too low and the flight too long for that plane. We both felt a lot more exhausted from this four hour flight than we did from the FCO-ORD one. A couple of days later I flew back to Chicago and made sure that it was on the Dreamliner.
Landing in LA felt surreal. We were gone for four weeks, visited three countries and 11 cities and towns. We flew on four different airlines, took two different national high speed train services, criss-crossed Italy by car and stayed in 7 hotels. It was definitely a trip that could have been done with more rest in mind, but as I said before, we booked it in chunks and it was impossible to consolidate this itinerary into something more relaxing. Regardless, it was a great experience and one that we’ll cherish for many years to come.