My friend Alex and I recently went on a week long trip through Europe, taking advantage of a British Airways sale for business class to Europe. We hit Zurich, Berlin, and London, staying 2-3 days in each city. Here’s a mini trip report, as well as some travel tips gained from first hand experience. Tips will be at the bottom of the post for those who don’t want to read the trip report.
Admittedly, I am one of the worst prepared frequent travelers out there. Due to taking so many frequent trips, and being a bit scatterbrained, I tend to barely plan, always forget to bring something, lose things in hotels, miss experiencing things, and make small mistakes that could have happened with better planning. But things somehow turn out okay in the end. But hopefully you can learn from my mistakes!
We left on a Friday afternoon from San Francisco to London, and onwards to Zürich. Alex had shown up to the airport before I did, and the check-in agent had asked to see the credit card that was used to book, but that was all cleared up when I arrived. But before we left SFO, we went lounge hopping! First we went to the Air France lounge with my Priority Pass, which had a very nice selection of alcohol but a somewhat limited selection of food. We wanted to check out the JAL and Cathay lounges, but they weren’t open at those hours. So next we went to the BA Terraces lounge. The food selection here was a bit better but the alcohol was not as nice. What’s interesting about this lounge is you board directly from the lounge!
Our longhaul was on BA 284 on a 747-400. Alex and I were seated next to each other in the center. I had spent the previous few days trying to convince BA to let us choose our seats online beforehand for free, as I was a new AA Platinum member, but due to claims that either BA’s systems weren’t seeing my status, or that my fare class was ineligible for free seat selection, I wasn’t able to do so. Fortunately, when check in rolled around, the seats we wanted were available. The amenity kit wasn’t very interesting, and the food was decent, but overall nothing super amazing about BA J, though it is nice.
Landing in London, we had a 3 hour layover or so before we needed to head to Zurich, so we went lounging again! This time was the British Airways Galleries lounge. I find it amusing that they give you a very upfront view of the First Class lounge as you are going up to the Galleries lounge. The Galleries lounge is quite nice, with a nice selection of hot food and alcohol. The lounge felt a bit commercialized though, with staff offering perfume samples and ads on the the walls.
We landed in Zurich in the afternoon and headed straight to the hotel. For our first stay in Zurich, we stayed at the Novotel Zurich City West, which I booked at around $130 a night, but with a 6000 Alaska Mileage Plan Miles bonus for booking my first stay through RocketMiles. Zurich was very pretty and had excellent public transport, but was way too expensive and not terribly interesting. I did have a great time at Widder Bar, and Uetliberg was very pretty.
I got a kick out of these dancing mice:
Onwards to Berlin! We noticed a couple of days before we left that we had bought hand-baggage only fares on both Air Berlin ZRH-TXL and British Airways TXL-LHR. Even though I was American Platinum, we would still not be allowed a free checked bag. So what we did was that Alex bought a checked bag, and I used an extra duffel bag that Alex brought as a carry on. Since we had to return to Zurich for one night for our flight back to the US, we loaded our extra luggage into my large luggage and left them at our hotel when we would return to Zurich.
None of our intra-Europe flights seemed worth it to use miles on. All the oneworld shorthauls had too much tax that made it not worth it to use Avios, and I had no Star Alliance programs that had cheap intra-Europe redemptions.
We stayed at the Grand Hostel Berlin for the 4 nights we were in Berlin, joined by one of Alex’s friends Jon. I hadn’t stayed at a hostel for about 2 years at that point. It was fun! We drank and socialized with other hostel guests each day. We had a private room and Jon stayed in a dorm. I remembered why I don’t tend to stay in hostels as much anymore: while it was quite fun and we met other travelers, Jon complained about being unable to sleep at night due to the noise, and it was way too hot in our room and we had poor sleep as well. Also, the shared bathroom situation wasn’t very comfortable either. I forgot to bring sandals for the showers so was walking around with my bare feet. I think I’ll still occasionally stay in hostels to meet other people when travelling alone, but you are trading comfort and security for socialization and money savings. For our touristy activities, we went to check out the Reichstag building, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust memorial, the Bauhaus Archives, the Brandenburg Gate, the DDR musuem, and a Christmas market. Also, we had dinner at Lorenz Adlon Esszimmer, which was amazing modern European food, with views of the Brandenburg Gate. Berlin was fairly interesting, and the food was much cheaper than Zurich, though we failed to find any nightlife, possibly because we were looking in the wrong places and it was early in the week. Next time I want to check out the techno clubs in Berlin!
Next, London! We checked out some lounges in TXL, but none were particularly special. The British Airways lounge is nicer than the Airportclub Lounge, no matter what Loungebuddy might say. TXL is interesting in that the departure area is also the check-in area, so there is no post-security area and all the lounges are outside!
London is one of my favorite cities. I booked us for 2 nights at the H10 London Waterloo because I had $450 or so in Expedia credit (if used at Expedia VIP Access hotels) and it was the nicest VIP Access hotel just above $450. I’ve been trying to get rid of my Expedia points for quite some time and finally found a use for them. It was also conveniently right next to the Ministry of Sound, which we were planning on hitting up.
About the H10 London Waterloo: Wow. Just amazing. I had never heard of the chain before, but apparently they are an upscale hotel chain based in Spain. It was one of the nicest non-major chain hotel I’ve ever stayed at, and the price tag really wasn’t bad at all. We got a welcome amenity at the front desk of a glass of cava, and when we got to our room, we found a free large bottle of beer as well as marshmallow treats. Also, the bed and room were super comfortable to sleep in, which was a welcome change from our Berlin hostel. Oh, but the Expedia VIP Access thing was a total crock though. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly special that we got with it.
We were somewhat lucky with our timing, because we found out Benny Benassi would be playing at the Ministry of Sound that weekend! We met up with more friends to go clubbing. We may have pregamed a little too hard, as one of our friends drank so much that the club wouldn’t let her in, and she and the friends accompanying her disappeared somewhere into a backroom for 30 minutes, before she was sent home. For our troubles though, the rest of the girls ended up getting VIP passes for the night.
With all trips though, you have to go home eventually. So we said farewell to London to fly back to Zurich (to catch a flight connecting back through London lol.) Fortunately on this segment, we caught the terms of hand-baggage only fares and bought a slightly higher fare that included bags. This time, we were flying Swiss, so we were flying out of the new Star Alliance terminal at LHR, T2, the Queen’s Terminal. T2 is a really nice, and has a selection of 5 Star Alliance lounges to pick from (though the 2 groups of lounges are on complete opposite ends of the terminal and are not practical to hop around between.) We were closer to the United lounge and Lufthansa lounge, so we went to check out the Lufthansa lounge with access from my Star Alliance Gold. As Star Alliance Gold, we were given access cards to the Senator lounge. The Lufthansa Senator lounge in LHR is REALLY nice, and has excellent food and drink. We also went to check out the Plaza Premium Lounge in LHR. I’ve gone to other Plaza Premium Lounges in Asia and found them quite nice. This one was no exception, with pretty good food and a selection of drinks. I found it surprisingly Asian themed though, with Thai food and beer.
For our one night in Zurich before we had to fly back to the US, we stayed at the Sheraton Zurich West. I managed to use a Best Rate Guarantee to get the rate down to 132 CHF a night, with a 2000 Starpoints bonus instead of taking 20% off. The Sheraton was quite nice. I nearly forgot that I had access to the Sheraton Club with my SPG American Express Business card, and due to some confusion with the front desk by not showing it at check in, and not showing it later when I went to ask, wasn’t sure if I actually had access or not. Fortunately, I was able to clear things up and had a very nice breakfast the next morning before heading back to the airport.
On our way back, along with a ton of shopping at both the Zurich and London airports, we went to check out the Aspire lounge (accessed via Priority Pass) in LHR that we had missed earlier. It was a bit crowded and the food was just okay, though they did have some nice champagne. Side note: every single lounge in Europe seems to have the ingredients to make Bloody Marys. I ended up getting very good at making Bloody Marys on this trip. Our flight back to SFO was on an A380 and we picked a center middle seat and a center side seat on the Upper Deck. I passed out right after dinner and slept for around 3 hours before being woken up again for a light meal.
Landing back in SFO was somewhat depressing after seeing how nice LHR was. I told Alex to download Mobile Passport and somehow he got through Customs & Immigration at about the same time that I did with Global Entry. Overall, great trip and if I see any more BA business class sales, I’m totally grabbing them.
tl;dr travel tips and lessons
- Even if you have multiple cards that offers no foreign exchange fee, different bank exchange rates can still affect the amount you pay on each card. Apps like Mercez can help you pick which card to use in different countries. There is no one bank / payment network that offers better rates in all situations
- British Airways is not very helpful about letting you pick your seat online for longhauls, even if you are a oneworld sapphire. I’m not sure whether it was due to them not seeing my status due to acquiring it very recently, or some weird fare condition, but I’m pretty sure I should be able to select my seats for free. Multiple calls to British Airways did not resolve the situation. Fortunately, as the 24 hour period for check-in came, the seats I wanted were still available.
- European airports are pretty strict on the 1 liter plastic bag of liquids. I was carrying around a bunch of liquids in a 1 gallon bag and had to throw some of them out. I’ve never had a problem when flying around Asia or the Americas.
- Google Flights may not give the whole picture for hand baggage fares or low cost carriers. Check Kayak too as well as the airline websites directly. I was able to find cheaper hand baggage fares booking directly through the airline.
- Hand baggage fares sometimes override all frequent flier benefits in regards to checked baggage, so check your fare conditions! This was the case for British Airways, Swiss, and Air Berlin.
- If you are returning to a city later in your trip, and have checked luggage, it may not be a bad idea to bring a smaller carry-on or duffel bag with you, and leave the checked bag at the hotel you’ll stay at when you return. Re-pack the things you need before you return into the carry-on. Since checked bags are usually free on international long haul, but are paid or the fares that include bags are more expensive, you can save money on checked baggage.
- Access to Sheraton clubs with the SPG Business Amex card does work! But you may need to ask about it and show your card.
- Do some conservative calculations ahead of time in regards to all you can ride transportation passes / extended time period passes. That way you won’t be attempting to do the calculations in your head on the spot. Specifically for Zürich, see if you can extend your 24 hour pass by multiple zones if you are traveling to multiple zones.
- Don’t forget to bring sandals, your own towel, and shower supplies for hostel bathrooms!