Tip: if you’re not booking a simple return ticket, it’s better and normally cheaper to get a decent travel agent to do it for you. I’m doing quite the globally circular route, and it’s one that is impossible to book on the Qantas website. Travel agents get commission from the airline (internationally) and know the cheaper routes (or, and I’ve done this before, they know the routes that get you more status credits.)
Tip: If you’ve got the points, hit the “request an upgrade” button in the Qantas website. Most of the time you won’t get one. Some of the time, you will. I ended up getting a text message from Qantas letting me know that I had an upgrade to Premium Economy on the 14-hour flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. This is a good thing, given that I’m nursing two fractured ribs at the moment.
Tip: That Uber normally takes fifteen minutes to appear, but don’t be surprised if it takes just four minutes, causing a rush out of the house carrying bags.
Tip: You can ask your Uber driver for the radio station you’d prefer. The driver settles on B105, after a brief dalliance with Nova. I listen to a computer playing me songs with idents in-between. “Never Ever” by All Saints is a surprising and welcome choice.
Tip: If running a radio station, set the cue points correctly. B105, that includes you at the end of that All Saints song. But it was interesting and fun to hear it fade to nothing at all.
Tip: Check before you fly whether one of the countries you want to fly to has a requirement for a bizarre piece of paper called an “attestation form”. Try not to wrinkle your nose up when the Qantas person checking you in is a bit confused about it all. He finds a paper copy because the app isn’t asking me for one, and also the QR code for my vaccination certificate doesn’t work. He is one of those people whose lips move when they read.
Tip: When offered a spinach and cheese wrap on your hour-long flight to Sydney, do not be surprised when it is, in reality, a building material made from spinach and cheese, designed to be a replacement for cement, in a pancake. It’s not too bad really, in spite of its cementy consistency.
Tip: Never, never, change between DOM and INT terminals at Sydney airport. This will only lead to sadness. But if you really have to, don’t worry if the queue for The Bus of Great Sadness between domestic and international is many miles long. (How long? Past Red Rooster long). Ignore it and take the train instead. It’s $6.65, it turns out. It gets you to the same place in roughly the same time and there’s no queuing required - just a bit of walking. And if you’ve a 14 hour flight ahead of you, that’s a good thing.
Tip: Use an app like App In The Air, or TripIt. They’ll give you alerts if your plane is delayed, and those alerts will come faster than anyone in the lounge knows about them, especially the fancy clackety-clack indicator board in Sydney’s fancy (but over-crowded) first-class lounge.
Tip: Don’t use Kayak Trips. It takes an hour to tell you about the same alert. There’s a reason why it’s free.
Tip: When your name is called on the tannoy at the gate, this does not mean that you have scored a further upgrade. Instead, it means that they’re puzzled where your attestation form is. Bring it out of your bag with a flourish, to the obvious delight of everyone concerned.
Tip: Premium Economy is much, much more pleasant than economy. Particularly, Premium Economy, in a window seat, in the first row, on the A380. My usual reticence about being in a bulkhead seat is mostly assuaged by the big storage bin under the window, which means I don’t lose my rucksack. These seats are a bit too close to a loo, I notice, but immediately after takeoff the curtains are drawn: those are the business class loos and Not For The Likes Of Us.
Tip: However nice the FA called Sally is, who comes to give you a WP welcome as soon as the flight has taken off, don’t think you’ll see her again on the flight at all, because you won’t.
Tip: When operating an aircraft and offering something called the Qantas Flyer Spritz as a fancy and nice-sounding drink on the menu, consider actually having some on board. But they had Pacific Ale, so I had some of that instead.
Tip: The food is better in Premium Economy. It’s served with metal cutlery on porcelain plates. The flight staff treat you as if you are a welcome customer and not an irritation they have to deal with. The Premium Economy enclave is quite nice - I liked it when it was a secret set of economy rows that only the frequent flyers knew about, but it’s even nicer with bigger seats.
Tip: When you land after a breakfast that wasn’t actually too bad but no longer involves yoghurt of any type which is disappointing, walk as fast as you can to passport control. This will get your blood pumping and give you a bit of much-needed exercise after such a long journey, and will also mean there are fewer people in front of you in the queue. This is an invariable and absolute rule.
Tip: When visiting a country for a conference, ensure you have some proof that you’re really going to the conference on your phone or something. Lots of questions from the bloke on LAX passport control, probably because I was here only a month ago doing the same thing. I’m pleased that when I come to North America in June, I’m bypassing the US altogether.
Tip: Once you’ve picked up and re-checked your bag in Los Angeles airport, if you’re going onto an American Airlines flight then you can turn right (something that is not signed). There will be a bored security person standing in the corridor. Show her your boarding pass. She will then allow you to pass, whereupon you will discover an entirely empty secret security area, where everyone is delighted to see you, and you’ll get through in no time. Then, follow the signs to terminal 4, and into the American Airlines Flagship Lounge.
Tip: The American Airlines Flagship Lounge has a wifi password that changes every month. Right now it’s “espresso”, something that’s unavailable in their lounges (but there is a machine which pours you a brown liquid if you get one of the remaining two mugs, which I did).
Tip: If you’re a WP flyer (OneWorld Emerald), you can get onto your American Airlines flight at any time, and you don’t need to wait for your seat row to be called. Points are deducted if you shout “PLATINUM FLYER COMING THROUGH!” or “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”
Tip: Las Vegas airport has a set of “trams” connecting the terminal to where you pick up your bags. One of these trams never works. You are guaranteed to get to the tram at the exact time it’s departing, and have to wait for the next one.
Tip: American Airlines offers free movies and a bunch of live TV channels on their wifi service. Please bring headphones, so that the sleeping British guy next to you isn’t woken up by you playing Pirates of the Carribbean at full volume through your tinny speaker, you total jerk.
Tip: American Airlines gives you a full can of soda on their drinks service. That’s a welcome thing, rather than others who will partially fill a small thimble.
Tip: American Airlines offer a credit card which gives you free points. Judging by the many times it’s mentioned during a flight, it seems to be the only thing keeping the airline in business. It was mentioned once before takeoff, once “because passengers were asking about it” in the middle of the flight, and once at the end of the flight, with FAs holding the application form to you as you try to get off.
Tip: The American Airlines Flagship Lounge in Chicago, where OneWorld Emeralds get access if they’re flying international that day, is good. Not as fancy as LA but also not as crowded.
Tip: American Airlines flies from Chicago to London, and it’s from the same terminal as your flight gets in from Las Vegas. My concern about a 45 minute change (which I got amended to three hours) wasn’t really a concern, it turns out. I am surrounded by - to the front, a young child and a harassed, scruffy looking dad. To behind, an Indian family. And next to me, a large Nigerian gentleman who is separated from his wife, and so turns round every so often. This flight is only 7 and a half hours. I don’t even know, this being AA, if we even get fed. I’m wondering whether BA would have been a better choice. But it would be BA, the UK’s economy airline. Perhaps that wouldn’t be the best plan.
Tip: Sometimes things go your way. The large Nigerian gentleman’s wife has found someone to swap with, which means the large Nigerian gentleman is no longer sitting next to me and we have a spare seat - me and the lady who had to move four times for him in the first ten minutes of the flight. She must be as delighted as I am. Possibly more so.
Tip: American Airlines has a better range of beer than Qantas. This isn’t difficult. I’m offered a choice of an IPA as well as, I think, Budweiser Lite and Heineken, but I heard the word “IPA” and had already made my choice. It’s Goose Island IPA. And why not. I did wonder if they would charge me for it, but they didn’t. I await the meal with slight trepidation.
Tip: Even though they’re notoriously stingy within the US, American Airlines feed you quite well. A collection of mysterious cuts of chicken in gravy with couscous, accompanied by some cheese and biscuits, and a thing that may have been a bread roll.
Tip: They give you breakfast as well, much to my genuine surprise for a short flight of seven hours. “Bite into delight” says the note on the bag; it’s something with coconut, a fig bar, and a Chobani yoghurt, complete with another set of plastic eating implements.
Tip: in the US, being a flight attendant is a career for you no matter how old you are. The average age of the FAs on this flight is, I’d wager, about 55 - only pulled down that far by a early 40s female on the other side of the aircraft. It’s quite striking and unusual, but it’s been the way of all my American flights. They’re really quite efficient at rushing through the cabin serving us, and then, even quicker, rushing through the cabin and taking away our empties. Not the Qantas way of testing how long they can leave empty food in front of you in some form of food safety experiment.
Tip: if you have an Apple charger, the plug pulls off, to reveal a figure-of-eight socket which any mains lead will plug into. You can buy short mains leads on eBay for the US, UK, Europe (and Australia) and keep them all in your backpack if you need to; they take no space. There’s no need to buy a fancy Apple plug or cable (and a cable will always be better, rather than hoping your Apple charger is light enough not to fall out of the socket). I charge my phone and my watch as we near Ireland - I’ll not have any time when we land.
Tip: Always try to buy tickets at the same time and on the same ticket number - your luggage will follow you to your next plane, and the airline should look after you in case anything bad happens. We’re told by the captain that we might have to hold for a bit on the way into Heathrow because of congestion (hardly a surprise if you’ve ever flown into Heathrow). I’ve got a 1hr 24 min layover in Heathrow, during which I need to take a Bus Of Sadness from terminal 3 to terminal 5, so I’m hoping we don’t get delayed too badly.
Tip: Heathrow is one of the busiest airports in the world. I get the pretty impressive sight of an Iberia plane in the holding pattern in front of us. We arrive 16 minutes late, and are told of a ten minute delay to get to the gate.
Tip: When you get off the plane, walk fast. Use the stairs not the escalator. I may have mentioned this before. I find Flight Connections and persuade the bloke on the door that there was room for one more on the bus, and squeeze on. Security was quick, and I arrive into terminal 5 at 9.45am. My 10.35am plane is from the B gates, a transit ride away, so no lounge for me this time.
Tip: Put an AirTag in your bag. There’s a tremendous amount of relaxation in checking where your bags are, only to find out that they’ve made it too. If you’re running Android as your phone, that’s fine - “Find My” works just fine on the iPad too (and apparently on the Mac, not that I’ve checked).
Tip: if you have British Airways flyer points, then one way to keep them active is to buy a sandwich onboard. In order to do this, you need to install the BA app before you fly. I installed it, but decided against it for this trip - I might do that on the way home, perhaps.
Tip: Berlin Brandenburg airport is new-ish. It was opened three years ago. Sadly, everything in it was commissioned more than 15 years ago, and it’s not very exciting nor is it very well built. The queue for passport control doesn’t work very well. The bags took fifteen minutes after a long passport wait. The baggage hall is dark and miserable. I’m looking forward to it in the reverse direction, but it’s not very nice.
Tip: While waiting for your bags in Berlin airport, buy a train ticket from the machine in the baggage hall. This might be a good idea on days when the trains aren’t on strike. Which they appear to be. The news says they’re on strike on Friday, and today is Wednesday, but all the big trains appear to be cancelled. There’s an S-Bahn from the station, which I get onto, which will take me quite slowly into the city centre, but it’s a start. It takes over an hour. The way back to the airport wasn’t much better, with many people waiting in vain for a train that was signed but never came.
Berlin Airport. Let me tell you about Berlin Airport. It’s surprisingly rubbish. You might expect, as the newest airport for any big city in the world that it would be good. But it isn’t.
Unlike any other airport built recently, the ceilings are surprisingly low. There’s little space, and little light - the walkways are built to be right in the middle and shielded from light. The floor is that slippy marble stuff, rather than anything offering any friction. Lights in the ceiling are not very capable of brightening up the dim corridors. The ceiling otherwise is made up of black grilles, which show the dust.
Much to my irritation, some of the lights had been fitted with cold-white rather than warm-white, making a messy and unkempt look; others just don’t work.
For an airport (eventually) opened in 2020, the signage is poor. Signs are dark brown, and not that obvious; the English text is half the size of the German text, which doesn’t help much. Some of the motorised walkways (or whatever we should call them instead of a travelator which is a brand) were broken. This airport has been open just three years.
The lounge that BA uses is right at one end of the terminal. It’s badly signed throughout, with directions randomly disappearing or pointing in slightly incorrect places. The lounge itself is small; a table of overly-loud Nordic gentlemen were clearly heard everywhere. Chairs are the ones that make a horrible scraping noise when moved. The wifi was the same as the airport wifi, which therefore had some traffic management on it, meaning the first 10% of every download whisks along before slowing to a crawl. The only redeeming feature: the lounge has its own passport control - one person - which I suspect means that it’s great at off-peak times but not so good otherwise.
And after all that, we get a Bus Of Great Sadness from the terminal to the aircraft (which was so close to the terminal it would have been within walking distance - but crossing a road). There should be no excuse for a Bus Of Great Sadness from a brand new airport.
I was hoping for something good at BER. After a time in Berlin marvelling at how good Germans are at big building projects, it’s a disappointment that BER is so underwhelming.
One Star. Could do better.
End of Interlude
Tip: you might think that points upgrades will never happen, but keep requesting them and sometimes you’ll be lucky. Two texts tell me that the Qantas gods have looked kindly on me, and I’ve a run in business all the way home, once I get past the first leg on BA, which was uneventful; and a nice chance snap from the Bus Of Terminal Sadness between 5 and 3.
Tip: some lounges are better than others. After the Bus Of Immense Sadness between terminal 5 and terminal 3 at LHR, I end up in a hot Qantas lounge which is full - so full the only place to really sit is downstairs in the meal bit, and I’m given a “bar” seat because all the tables are either full or reserved. None of the tables have power points - upstairs, power points are on the wall but the tables are not, thus causing a trip hazard if you were to use them. Service in the dining area is perfunctory to the point of being rude. The all-Indian wait staff chatter loudly to themselves in Urdu, are efficient but cold, sometimes reach over me at the bar to pick things up for others, and the whole experience is not great. I gather the London lounge is to be given a renovation and enlargement or something - improvement here can’t be too soon.
Tip: Look, Berlin Airport, here’s how the UK does a corridor to the gates. Twice as high as yours. Lots more natural light.
Tip: Sometimes, faults happen. In this case, QF2 had an electrical fault which meant that the air conditioning system wouldn’t work on the ground. “It’s 30° in there, so we’re trying to cool it down for you,” we’re told. We heard there was some equipment to blow cold air through the plane; then, five minutes later, the crew had hit on a better idea - run the engines while at the gate. This worked well, but you can only run the engines at the gate for 15 minutes at Heathrow, so we’re told to be extra-quick at boarding. We get onto a warm-ish plane, which gets quite toasty-warm, before pushing back and almost instantly getting nicely cool again. Presumably this will happen again in Singapore, which I’m glad I’m not going to be on.
Tip: the A380 upstairs has little storage areas next to the window, even in business. This is an excellent place to keep things. I don’t think I’ve flown in business on the refreshed Qantas A380 before, but it was comfortable and very good. Both meals were good, James the FA had both a memorable name and a good way with him. QF2 LHR-SIN is staffed by a British crew, which I do find quite confusing.
Tip: Take time in Singapore to get out of the airport and into The Jewel. It’s the big shopping centre next to the airport, and takes no time to get to - there are plenty of interesting and fun shops to visit, as well as the impressive water feature and other things. Now you no longer need to fill out copious COVID forms, it’s an easy and fun thing to do. I go to Tokyu Hands, which as you can tell from the name is a, oh, no, you probably can’t tell anything from the name, but it sells beauty products, stationery and home goods. I happen to know it sells Hario coffee stuff, and find some more filter paper. It’s very much cheaper here than at home.
Tip: The Qantas First lounge in Singapore is the best lounge on the network. Everything is right with it - from the airy, large showers to the attentive service, the good food and the spacious environment. It’s a very good experience. The difference from LHR is vast. If anyone at the airline wishes to make their lounge product better, just copy what’s going on in SIN.
Tip: handwritten notes are amazing to receive. I wander onto SIN-BNE to find my seat (6K, in a little business enclave with only eight business seats in it), and next to the seat, a card with a Qantas Frequent Flyers logo on it, and a personal message from the CSM on the flight. This is a very nice gesture - and most unusual, too: I’ve not ever seen this before. Very impressive
Tip: some FAs want you to enjoy yourself. I’d eaten well in the QF First lounge, so just asked for the cheese plate with a dessert wine. Alex asked me if I wanted a sweet or sticky one. I didn’t really know the answer. “I’ll get both,” he said. And he did. I think the sweet one was the white, and the sticky one was the muscat. I think. Anyway, I then slept.
Tip: Some of Qantas’s planes have coffee machines, so you can get better coffee than just that brown stuff. Alex noted my tick in the breakfast order for coffee, and told me that they had a coffee machine and would I like an espresso or maybe a latte? Yes please. Excellent. He was also excellent at looking after an old and not-very-well lady who was sitting behind me. Anyway, I also got some form of breakfast bun - the only hot choice on this flight. It was tasty, even if the bun itself was bone dry. It promised some of Neil’s Special Sauce, but I’m not sure I could taste any of that.
Tip: When landing in Australia from an overseas trip, look for the strange machines on the way to passport control. They’re where you scan your passport, answer a few questions about where you’ve been, and you get a slip of paper. If you do it now, rather than in passport control itself, you’ll beat plenty of the queues. As I did. A first for me - someone from immigration hanging around the baggage carousel and asking questions, stamping our passenger cards as she went.
Tip: The right time to book your Uber is as you walk out of customs. And… home. For now.