Trip report: to Europe on Qantas, and back again on Emirates

The Uber driver wasn’t expecting us to have three large suitcases, and his little Toyota Corolla wasn’t really up to the task, particularly since the boot of Mohammed’s car already had a cardboard box in it with mysterious things packed in plastic bags. But he moved mountains to get the cases in; two held by a seatbelt in the back seat, and, at 4.30am (shudder), we squeezed into his slightly over-warm car for the trip to the airport.

Unlike my usual trips. I’m travelling with my family: my nine year-old daughter and my partner. I’ve filled in the forms required for a short stop-off in Singapore — which required uploading the QR codes from our vaccination certificates for some reason, twice — and done nothing to get into the UK because they don’t appear to care. I have a number of passports and printouts with me in a big plastic folder in my backpack, and significantly more luggage than normal.

We arrive at Brisbane domestic airport, and queue up in the “International Connections” bit to drop off our bags. We’re told we will next see our bags in London. I hope we will, though to be honest, Qantas has had a pretty ropey two weeks of press coverage, including many stories of lost baggage woe, and it sounds like Heathrow is a bloody nightmare for baggage at the moment, so I’m not really that confident, but there we go.

We’re told that it’s easy to change from the domestic to international terminal in Melbourne: it’s just a little walk. Listen up, Sydney airport, and your Transfer Bus Of Great Sadness.

We have arrived before the Qantas lounge opens, so we end up paying (paying!) for coffees in the food court. Brisbane domestic airport, unlike the international terminal, is fully open and already has a number of people in it, so we spend $14.95 on some coffee and sit and wait for the lounge to open. A lady comes to sit close to us, talking to her companion so loudly he’d probably still be able to hear if he was in the next town. The lounge opens, and we wander in for some peace and quiet.

Nobody now has to wear masks in the airport, though around 40% of people are, including us. Not the man sitting over there, though, tapping into his MacBook. He sneezes very loudly, not just once but three times, the last extra-loud sneeze accompanied by him saying “go on, get out”. This sneeze exorcism seems to work, and we hear nothing more from him for the next hour. I must try that.

Daughter is amazed at the machine that makes pancakes, and gets some freshly cooked, peering into the lit internals of the machine to watch her squidgy pancakes being made for her. I go for the mango yoghurt and Vegemite on toast (that’s two different items, for clarity), and my partner has a dainty amount of scrambled egg and sausage and beans.

The first flight of the day (to Sydney) was cancelled, and we are on the third flight, down to sunny Melbourne, which my daughter astutely notices is in the wrong direction. (We’re doing this for cost reasons, to avoid The Sad Bus Of Transfer Misery, and to get five hours in Singapore).

QF609 BNE-MEL, A330–200

The Good: it’s a big plane. As a family, we inhabit the four seats in the middle, and (as I suspected I might) I have an empty seat next to me. I engineered all the seating to have me (a Platinum) next to the empty seat: it’s worked out so far.

The Bad: possibly because it’s a big plane, it has no Wifi. I go through a bunch of email anyway in the iPad, and wait for it to sync on the ground. But it’s roomy, if a little cold.

The Ugly: breakfast comes round, and the obviously seasoned passenger to my left across the aisle doesn’t want the frittata with caramelised onions, because “I know what it’s like”. “Ah,” says the FA in response, “you’ve been to this restaurant before.” I foolishly ignore this good-humoured but obvious portent of doom, and get the thing anyway. It’s a lump of greasy egg, with some not-quite-caramelised onions on top. We aren’t given any cutlery, so it’s quite hard to eat: not really something to hold, because it feels like tepid flesh. The best way to eat it would be to use the cardboard box as some form of handling tool, but that presupposes you’d ever want to eat it, because it was vile. I’m normally a fan of anything with egg, but this achieved the impossible of being an eggy thing that I did not like.

I get a Platinum Welcome after that, which was unexpected on a domestic sector. “Is there anything else I can get you?” “Please not another frittata”.

The flight goes quite fast, and before long we’re landing in Melbourne airport, early (and a little too early, since someone else is in our parking bay, and they wouldn’t get out for half an hour.)

Melbourne International Airport

Melbourne Airport is quite badly signed, isn’t it? Follow one sign, and the trail disappears until you wheel around in a circle, disorientated, to discover another sign pointing in the other direction. My favourite was the signs after exiting the Qantas First lounge which point to gates 7 and 9, and gates 1–5, and gates 11–14 or something, but gives you no clue where gate 8 was. Guess where our flight was departing from.

Anyway, a walk from domestic to international as promised (pay attention, Sydney Airport and your Bus of Despair), and through some relatively fast-flowing security without a WP line, and we (after getting lost a number of times as the signs disappear and then reappear at an odd angle) finally found our way to the Qantas First lounge. I’ve not been here before, but it was lovely. The staff were super-helpful for a decidedly non-Neil Perry eggs and ham for my daughter, and we enjoyed breakfast then a sneaky drink. My daughter had a not-so-sneaky apple juice.

The view out of the First lounge is of the runway and taxiway — the cheery sight of the retro roo was only slightly spoilt by the storm that came in from the west, covering the place in a deluge of rain and meaning our flight was a little delayed to take off.

A trip via WHSmith later ($2,450 for a bag of crisps and some chocolate, and I’m only slightly over exaggerating), we boarded at the rather crowded gate 8 for our 6,039 km, almost seven hour, flight.

QF35 MEL-SIN, A330–300

I watch a dreadful seven hour long movie. It seemed to consist of an animation of a plane slowly flying from Melbourne to Singapore. I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s called “Time To Destination”.

I didn’t, in fact: but thanks to YouTube’s auto-download algorithms, I watched a nice interview between Rob Brydon and Milton Jones, where Milton Jones did that joke better than me.

I also watched a German bloke explain how to properly use the Lego brick remover tool; a slightly bored English guy showing off his Python coding skills, and some people discovering a long-lost mining camp in Nevada, and started to fall asleep to someone extolling the virtues of the Minidisc system.

Sadly, I hadn’t been given an empty seat next to me, and my neighbour kept pushing my elbow off the armrest, fiddled about an awful lot, and went to the bathroom three times, but it was my daughter so I can’t complain too much.

Lunch was something pretending to be a chicken curry (with small chunks of mechanically removed meat), with the mysterious warm spongy caky thing, and a chocolate Paddle Pop for afters. My daughter was given macaroni cheese with a side order of vegetables (“yuk!”), a carton of “fruit and pure water”, presumably called that because they can’t call 70% Apple juice “Apple juice” (which she wasn’t going for either), and some crunchy yet tasteless snacks called Turtle Puffs, which disappointingly were not made of real turtles.

Little Creatures’ Pacific Ale was in the drinks trolley. By the second time they’d run out, but I managed to get them to pop over to business class to get some more. It’s the saving grace in the Qantas dull beers list (though they did also have 150 Lashes, which is almost acceptable).

We failed to sleep.

A good thing: just before the flight ended, an FA went down the aisle offering fresh face masks. Yes. This is good. Thank you.

Singapore Airport

Singapore Airport’s immigration is slow. They look at some piece of paper that the Singapore government made me print out, but don’t look at the other piece of paper that the government made me print out. I wonder how much additional work The Jewel has been for immigration, especially in terminal 1?

I’d kept The Jewel quiet from my daughter, because how do you explain a waterfall in the middle of a shopping centre anyway, especially one that looks like, in the right light, water falling from the heavens into the depths of hell? Still an amazing sight.

We’d bought a bundle ticket to The Jewel’s various kid activity: a bouncing net and a walking net (the latter of which is terrifying over four floors of shopping centre), a mirror maze, a hedge maze, and a bridge which is made of clear glass in the middle. It’s all rather fun, and tired her out so completely, we had to beat a hasty retreat to the lounge rather than explore the fun Japanese stores.

The QF lounge is rather empty, but we’re told as we go in that the First lounge is open again (it opened a week previous). I knew this actually, but we elected to go into the normal lounge for a rest, and then moved on to the First lounge, which is lovely.

All the pieces of furniture have power sockets in them; it’s large (significantly larger than LAX, which I think remains closed); it has lots of light wood everywhere, it’s a very pleasant place to be. It even has an Australian craft beer that I’ve not heard of before. Bravo. The TVs show CNN, rather than Sky News Australia, which is a good thing.

QF1 SIN — LHR, A380

Not the best start. A 35 minute delay, caused “mainly by a mechanical issue”, ballooned to more than 90 minutes. One of those mechanical issues was a faulty door, which is probably important to get right.

A miracle did happen, though. When we got on the plane, the IFE displayed a frozen “Loading” screen, but a reboot of the system — often entirely useless — actually worked. I can’t think of a time that has ever worked, I’ll be honest.

I had asked in the lounge whether we’d need to wear masks on this sector. “Oh, yes,” said the lounge staff, masks are mandatory on all flights. Yet, I’d heard that Qantas has shifted to a “destination rules” book, and this appears to be the case on this flight: masks are optional when on a flight flying to the UK. All passengers still have to be vaccinated, though; a rule that makes me feel relatively safe to remove the mask. It interferes with my sleep, and I need some.

I had insisted on the window seat to help me sleep. It’s bloody freezing in this plane, so I’m grateful for the blanket, and fall into a deep sleep. Nine hours later, we wake up as a family. Couldn’t tell you what dinner was like, nor the mid flight snack, but the sleep was very good.

My daughter was delighted with a magic draw pad thing that an FA delivered a short while into the flight — and some socks.

Landing in Heathrow after a Qantas breakfast that was not as bad as some, but better than others, we are shepherded into the “family” passport queue, where we are rewarded for having a family by being made to queue for 45 minutes, shuffling slowly forwards. Eurgh. After that wait, it’s surprising that the bags still hadn’t come out, so we wait all over again. Our hire car was apparently a “short bus ride” away (no hire car companies remain in Heathrow itself); the bus ride is once an hour and would have taken quite some time, so a $45 Uber later, we ended up queuing for another 45 minutes to pick up the car. Welcome to broken Britain, with a clown Prime Minister. If only I could do something about some of this to make it a better place to be — just like if I could get rid of the need to use the horrible Australian DPD app, and the insistence of Qantas to show Sky News in their lounges when they really ought to be showing ABC News.

London Heathrow

Ten days of family holiday later, and after persuading two cabinet ministers to resign thus eventually kicking out the clown Prime Minister (you’re welcome), I drop the car off (it was a nice big car but $150 to fill the tank each time). I walk from the Holiday Inn on J4 of the M4 to the Holiday Inn in Bath Road — a 30 minute walk in the sunshine through Sipson, one of those British villages that would be immeasurably improved if it was turned into a new runway for Heathrow, something that is regularly promised but somehow never happens. I did consider popping into the pub for a quick pint, but the pub I spotted on Google Maps looked as if it was closed from the outside. (Google said it was busier than normal).

The Holiday Inn in Bath Road is rather good — modern, with a big bar and breakfast area. It was full of Japanese flight attendants when I arrived earlier with the family, but after my walk from the other Holiday Inn, it’s quieter. I hide in the bar to work (no cask ale, but a decent-ish Camden Pale on tap). Next morning, a decent breakfast (and cheap, since it’s an additional cost on the room and not per person), and we make our way to the airport via an Uber driver who was quite angry at the app telling him to pick us up from the wrong place.

Checking in with Emirates was nice and easy, because the Australian government has managed to remove the need for the horrible Australian DPD app (you’re welcome). For this flight, therefore, I don’t need to use an Australian government app to upload a scan of my passport from the Australian government, nor attempt to scan the vaccination certificate that the Australian government gave me to upload to the Australian government again. What an utter waste of time that all was.

Checking in was also astonishingly brusque and rude — from the Emirates Platinum checkin desk. I’ve rarely had someone so disinterested in me, my family or my flight: just some dull punching in of data and no attempt to smile or be pleasant. Strange start.

T3 is packed full of people, and the Qantas lounge is busy. As a Platinum, I arrive with my partner and daughter — which, apparently, isn’t actually allowed since we’re flying Emirates. I gather that I’m really only allowed one guest, and not my daughter as well. We’re let in anyway, but after the Sofitel lady makes it clear that she’s doing me a favour. Thank you, Sofitel lady.

Qantas isn’t showing Sky News Australia, after having reached agreement with ABC News to show that channel instead (again, you’re welcome), although it wasn’t showing ABC News either here. It soon empties out; the restaurant bit on the ground floor closes down until dinner time (with the staff joking with each other in their downtime), and I do a little work.

We then shift to the Emirates lounge, which has a little more food in it, and many more people. We’re let into this lounge as a family though, so that’s nice. We board straight from the lounge, in the Emirates way.

EK2 LHR-DXB A380

The flight is full — over-full, I hear one of the FAs saying (and will be this way for quite a few weeks, we’re told). A few weeks ago, I tried choosing seats to discover that nine year-old daughter had been given a seat of her own, ten rows in front of her parents, but I was able to fix that: moving us to a middle row. That would have been, um, sub-optimal.

Emirates has live TV on board, and one of those channels is BBC World News — astonishingly and in a world first, actually in the correct aspect ratio. (It appeared to be CNN’s turn to be badly squashed into 4:3). I like the live TV service, and it’s especially good to be able to watch the continuing coverage of Boris Johnson resigning for being a massive clownish liar.

Rather excellently, the in flight system also allows you to connect your own headphones via Bluetooth. I’ve not used this before — and it works well. Less impressive is the camera pointing towards my face — no idea where it is connected and what it does.

The FA delivered a cardboard box full of goodies to my daughter — stickers, cards, and a drawing pad. It was held shut with a paper collar saying “no need for the plastic bag!”, which we discovered after opening the plastic bag it came in anyway. We’re also all given face masks, in a plastic bag, and a squeezy bottle of hand sanitiser each.

The food was good, and I watched a few videos of a man taking something apart with a Scottish accent and a Dremel drill to discover how it worked; then a recording of Boris Johnson’s clownish non-apology of a resignation speech courtesy of ABC Australia; and two reviews of Apple’s slightly bewildering M2 chip in a 2015 form-factor laptop.

My daughter’s child meal had no pretence of being healthy — Nutella was served with the bread roll, and a carton of chocolate milk was also there (and some really oddly sweet cheese biscuits). She enjoyed the macaroni cheese with chicken more than I thought she would.

1hr 45m towards the end of the flight, and interrupting my download from BBC Sounds of Paul McCartney performing live in Glastonbury, I’m tapped on the arm by an FA, trying to give me a gluten-free meal. It’s my neighbour’s. We’re in the right seats, too. Weird.

Dubai airport

A quick security check and train ride to our terminal. The Emirates First lounge is comfortable and gives us, even at gone midnight, a freshly cooked meal. As is the Emirates way once more, we board from the lounge.

EK430 DXB-BNE A380

Back onto another A380, this one rocking a slightly older IFE (no Bluetooth audio). Another gift for my daughter, another hand sanitiser, another spare face mask. We still get live TV and wifi if we want to pay for it. I get a Platinum welcome shortly after takeoff.

We’re second row from the front in Economy, which is good, though means that we’re at the foot of the stairs (and those lights are never dimmed), and there’s a bit of additional foot traffic from people waiting to use the loo.

The only drawback of this flight is the slightly strange meal configuration: breakfast is served as you get on (with coffee and juice), and the main meal is served about three hours before we land. I know about it for this time, hence our trip to the lounge beforehand.

A comfortable flight, and we slept most of the way. The main meal was a good-tasting chicken thing with couscous, and we land on time.

Which leads me to the uncomfortable realisation that the Emirates experience is now rather demonstrably better than the Qantas one. Not only do I have a direct flight to Brisbane from DXB, thus avoiding the horrible experience at Sydney airport, the in-flight catering is better, the IFE is better, the seats are comfortable, and everything works as it should.

I don’t like the bling on Emirates, the fake gold, the pretend wood, it’s all rather old-fashioned. I prefer the styling of the Qantas lounges, and the attempt by Qantas to do the right thing for the environment, rather than the still plastic-filled world of Emirates. There’s something nice about being a home passenger of my home airline — a feeling that you’re back home the moment you board the plane; and I get the feeling on Emirates that you are just one small passenger in a massive operation — dehumanising, perhaps, but also highly efficient.

However, the little touches on Emirates — not just the IFE and wifi, but everything else just working, and the food being considerably better — does lead me to consider using Emirates more in future for the long haul into Europe. I wonder if Qantas is watching.