27 June 2011

A Trip About Flights (Germany and Tokyo, Too)

This trip was different in many different aspects.  First, It was planned around taking (or trying to take) specific flights.  It was planned to be a trip within a trip. It was planned with a fair amount of uncertainty that would be a part of the trip up until the final flight. Finally, it was a trip where, if fully realized, I would fly over 20,000 miles in a week but only just over 5000 miles would be credited towards my United goal of lifetime 3 million miles.  Oh, I also wanted to visit interesting and new places and needed to stay at some Hilton Hotels to work towards maintaining status.

The core of the trip was to fly on ANA's flights featuring their new 777 configuration with the First Square service on their Inspiration of Japan flights.  This was going to be a free flight, using miles from American Express transferred to my newly-created ANA Mileage Club account.  In planning this, I did not realize in the beginning that ANA is pretty conservative in allocating first class seats for awards, even if the cabin is fairly empty.  So, I had already moved the miles irreversibly over to my ANA account and then was promptly waitlisted for a round-trip first class award ticket between Frankfurt and Tokyo (this was also before the earthquake and tsunami in Japan).  Why from Frankfurt?  ANA only flies these newly-configured aircraft on two routes:  Frankfurt/Tokyo and New York/Tokyo.  I figured the Frankfurt route would be easier for getting an award at the time, especially as I looked at the seat availability.  ANA lets you waitlist for an award ticket for up to two weeks before the travel date -- after that, the request is cancelled.  So, there was an big uncertainty here which I normally do not have when planning a trip.  It was entirely possible I would not be going to Tokyo at all, yet I had to try and plan the rest of the trip around this core.

This led me to the other part of this flying-centric vacation.  Lufthansa was scheduled to start flying the Airbus A-380 between San Francisco and Frankfurt, and I wanted to try and experience their First Class service.  I decided that this would make a nice bracket around the ANA flights.  I would plan to fly to Germany, spend a couple of nights, fly to Tokyo, spend a couple of nights, fly back to Frankfurt, spend a couple of nights, and then return to San Francisco.  In addition, I wanted a chance to use the Lufthansa First Class Terminal at Frankfurt and all the amenities I had heard about.  The best way I thought I could do this was fly business class to and from Germany and try to upgrade with miles as a Star Alliance upgrade.  To keep the costs down I asked United to book me in business on a Z fare to Frankfurt (since it was less important to fly Lufthansa over to Germany) and book an upgradeable business D fare on Lufthansa for the return.  To upgrade with miles, it would have to clear at least 24 hours before the flight.  Up until then, I would have to check frequently for the upgrade (no waitlist), knowing that Lufthansa was being very stingy about opening up First Class on the A-380 to non-Lufthansa high elite fliers.  If it didn't clear, my last resort would be to try a day-of upgrade using a United Systemwide upgrade.

So, part of the trip would be set (and non-changeable) and part would be undetermined until possibly the last minute.  So how do you plan the rest of the time?  Especially as the weeks passed with no word from ANA, I had to decide how the rest of my trip could go.  I chose to make reservations for my first two night in Germany in Mainz.  I had passed through there before, but had never explored.  I had just read a review of one Hilton there that was recently refurbished.  Mainz is not far from Frankfurt Airport and I knew I would probably stay in Frankfurt at the tail end of the trip.  On that part, I would do a day trip from Frankfurt somewhere (I ultimately decided just before leaving the U.S. to go to Aachen).  In between, after some research, I decided that if I did not make it on the ANA flights, I would spend a few days in Hamburg.

In late May, it was looking pretty bleak.  No Star Alliance upgrade yet on my return flight from Germany.  And, no award ticket from ANA.  The expiration date for the award reservation had eventually passed, about 10 days before I was to leave for Germany.  So, I was starting to think I would eventually be visiting Hamburg and started researching that aspect of the trip (hotels, transportation, etc.).  A little less than a week before my flight to Frankfurt, I had good news, kind of.  My daily check on the ANA website revealed that a first class seat from Frankfurt to Tokyo on the flight I wanted on the exact day that I wanted was available.  However, there was no return.  I decided I would wait a little before taking action as I hadn't considered what options I had for the return flight and hoped maybe the return seat would become available.  After 18 hours, I could note let the seat possible get away as it was exactly what I wanted, so I grabbed the award seat.  For the return, my best and most interesting Star Alliance option would be to fly Lufthansa's A-380 from Tokyo to Frankfurt in business class.  I lost out a little on the miles value as it cost me more miles than the all-ANA flights in First would.  But I had just enough miles travelled to cover the award.

Mainz.  There are two Hiltons in Mainz, and the one I selected called me to say they were overbooked and if it would be okay if they moved my stay to the other Hilton (move form the Mainz City location to the one by the river).  I really did not have a choice, so I agreed.  I then had to figure out the best way to get to that hotel as I had planned out the route to the other hotel (different train stop and different distances).

Finally. . . . the trip.

To Mainz

I was familiar with the S-Bahn stop closest to the Hilton Mainz.  So, 3.90 euro half-hour ride later, I was there.  It was a 15-minute walk along a major street to the hotel.  They were nice and gave me a top-floor river view room.

Mainz has a large Romanesque cathedral and a nice old-city section with some pedestrian-only streets.  Lots of outdoor places to eat.  Very picturesque. The St Stephen's Church with the Chagall windows was among the highlights. They also have a Gutenberg museum with three Gutenberg Bibles on display.  Mainz is also a major river cruise stop (right by the Hilton).  With a Mainz Card, I received free entrance to a few museums (some were closed), free use of transportation within the region, and free transport between Mainz and the Frankfurt Airport.  It was good for 48 hours, which was about as long as my planned stay.

I also had time to take the train to nearby Wiesbaden and explore that city as well.  No time to take advantage of the spa, but another nice town to explore.


I was eagerly looking forward to my ANA First Class flight to Tokyo since it was so difficult to get.  When I boarded, I learned that I was the only one in the First Class cabin.  I found this interesting as after I had secured my award, I went back and checked for award availability and there was none.  So, they had only posted one seat up for awards -- strange.

Needless to say, it was a great experience.  They gave me the full menu to choose from, meaning I could mix and match any combination of food from the different menu sections (Japanese and Western).  Also, instead of waiting for me to ask to set up my seat to be a bed, they just prepared the seat across from me to use as a bed whenever I was ready to do so.  It was a close to being on a private flight as I'll probably ever come.

With my short stay in Tokyo, the focal point was my very nice experience at the Tapas Molecular Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel.  Just a sampling of the tasting menu appears below.


Since I was on an award ticket back to Frankfurt, there was no way I could try to upgrade from Business Class.  Still it was going to be a new experience since it was my first ride on the A-380.  Lufthansa allocated a half-hour for boarding in Tokyo.  When we began, both the elite cabins and the economy cabin started boarding at the same time, though at different sides of the gate.  We all went through the same door, but then those in the elite cabin went up to the second-level walkway.  On Lufthansa, the entire top deck is First/Business (8 + 98 seats).  The seats in Business are the same as currently used on other planes -- flat, but angled.  Normally, I don't like Airbus planes, but the experience was very nice.  The plane even has three cameras you can switch to -- nose, belly down, and tail angled down.  The plane seemed quieter than most other planes.  I was seated in the back section of the top deck.

This was the first time I had to try and sleep with the angled flat seats.  I had experienced them on other Lufthansa flights, but the durations were much shorter and generally didn't require trying to sleep.  I discovered that it's not quite as comfortable as a true 180-degree lie-flat seat.  But I survived.

For my one full-day back in Germany, my plan was to visit Aachen, about a 2-hour train ride from Frankfurt via Cologne.  Aachen was the seat of government for Charlemagne and for several Holy Roman Emperors.  It is also known as Aix-la-Chapelle.  Consequently, it's a very historic town and one I enjoyed visiting as well.

On my return to Frankfurt, I was able to make the trip in under two hours by using a Thalys (French) train and then connecting to a German ICE train in Cologne.  I was a little disappointed in the Thalys ride, While it was nice and even had free wifi, I was sitting in First Class and didn't even receive a drink or any other kind of service.  Most of the time on German trains, you at least get a little candy, particularly towards the end of the train's run.


My last shot at the First Class upgrade for my A-380 ride back to SFO was a standby Systemwide upgrade.  I arrived at the airport early, but I was still unable to secure an upgrade.  They said that the cabin was booked full and that there was already a waiting list (which probably meant people who outranked me were waiting).  So, this was the only real disappointment on the trip.  The ride was basically the same as the flight from Tokyo to Frankfurt.  The boarding was a little different though.  There are lounges on two levels at Frankfurt, so at boarding time, you can board directly from the lounge onto the top deck (if that is where your seat is).  Also, they had a really nice dessert presentation, which I had not seen before.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, I learned that they sometimes split the luggage delivery between two carousels.

I will have to try again to get into First Class on one of these A-380 Lufthansa flights.

04 June 2011


Vienna has been on my list for awhile.  But, It hasn't been directly in the path of any prior trips and so I had to wait until a good time came to devote a whole trip.  After researching, I decided that my best bet (and least expensive) was to route via London and take a Star Alliance carrier to Vienna (Austrian Airlines).  The nighttime London flight arrived on time into Heathrow and since almost all the Star Alliance carriers are in Terminal 1, it was an easy transfer with a stop in security.  All was going well until we were all boarded.  We were then told that we were on hold because of the bad weather (thunderstorms) had caused a long queue for takoffs (we were #41).  We sat on the plane at the gate for 2 hours until we finally left.  The pilot blamed it on the nature of Heathrow.  Fortunately, I had no definite plans for the evening, so I was okay hanging out.

Vienna was a new airport for me, so I wasn't sure what to expect.  Since most of the passengers were EU citizens, the line for non-EU members was not very long, especially since I was not connecting, so passport control was quick.  While waiting for my luggage, I stopped in at the Tourist info center right in baggage claim.  I bought my Vienna Card for 18.50 euro for museum discounts and free local transportation for 3 days.  I was also able to buy the zone supplement for 1.80 euro for the S-Bahn trip into town.  There is a fast train into town called City Airport Train (CAT) for 9 euro (8 euro with the Vienna Card) that turns a 30-minute ride into a 16-minute ride, but I didn't need to get into town that fast.  I then grabbed my luggage and followed the exit signs to the S-Bahn.

The Hilton Vienna that I chose was right next to the Wien-Mitte rail station, so I did not have far to go once I exited above ground.  I was upgraded to an Executive Level Junior Suite which was very nice (with two huge flat screen TVs that I never used).  I then called it a night so that I could get an early start the next day.

I studied the weather forecast for the weekend and decided that I should visit the Summer Palace (Schloss Schonbrunn) first. However, I headed to the Opera House to see when the tours were scheduled to be offered.  Turns out none were on the calendar until Sunday morning.  Moving on, it was a short S-bahn ride from central Vienna.  I purchased a discounted Classic Pass ticket that entitled me to tour the Palace, visit the maze, go to the top of the Gloriette, and walk around the Privy Garden.  Picture were not allowed inside the palace, which in many ways was very typical of other palaces that I have seen.  but it did have some uniquely decorated rooms which were worth seeing.  The audio guide was included and helped me understand more about the Imperial Family and the history of the Habsburg Dynasty.
Palace rear
Fountain and Gloriette
Neptune's Fountain
Next, I headed back into Central Vienna to get acquainted with the main part of the city. My first stop would be the center of Vienna, St. Stephan's Cathedral. The Cathedral has a unique profile because it has only one completed tall spire. I rode the elevator to the top of the bell tower (a lower platform) for views of the city and the cathedral structure. I was already starting to get a nice feel for Vienna's charm.

At this time, it was starting to rain.  I tried to walk around a bit to continue getting oriented with the streets and sights. I popped into some shops, including one very interesting marzipan place that makes these tiny candy shapes and sells them in well-fashioned storage boxes. I even found the recommended gelato place nearby.  But eventually, I headed back to my hotel to rest and refuel.

I did go out after dark to see how the buildings looked lit up and to search for a strudel for dessert.  It was raining and most patisseries were closed.  I did find one big cafe open that sells gelato and strudel to go, so I bought the strudel and headed back to get out of the rain.

The beginning of the day was supposed to continue to be wet, so I planned to spend most of it indoors.  First stop was the Hofburg palace complex.  The Palace ticket lets you into the ground floor rooms, the Imperial Apartments, and the Sisi Museum (Sisi was the nickname of Elizabeth, wife of Emperor Franz Josef I).  The first part of the palace tour takes you through the kitchen area where there are many many display cases of tableware.  Some of the porcelain was really interesting and you could take pictures.

The Sisi Museum is relatively new and the intent is to delve into the myth and reality of Empress Elizabeth.  Evidently, she seemed to have suffered something akin to the Princess Diana Syndrome, but was much beloved by her husband.  She met a surprising death as the victim of an assassination by an Italian activist.

I also visited the Treasury, which is in a different part of the palace complex.  It also requires a separate entrance fee, but is worth it.  There were a lot of religious artifacts, swords and armor, and treasures like one of the last crowns worn by a Holy Roman Emperor.

I found the Globe Museum fascinating.  There were some very old globes exhibited, at least one pre

Afterwards, I took a long stroll around part of the ring road that surrounds the center.  I passed the Rathaus, the Volksgarten (with all the roses in bloom), the Parliament Building, and the Spittelburg area.

 On my departure day, I wasn't leaving until the afternoon, so it was perfect timing to catch a Sunday morning State Opera House tour. There were a surprising number of people gathered for the first tour at 9 am. The tickets go on sale 20 minutes before the tour and they divide you up by language. We were fortunate in that they were going to let us backstage to see them setting up for the next performance.

I caught the S-Bahn out to the airport (no need to take the fast train).  I checked in at the Lufthansa counter.  Even though I was only going to London, I had to show them my onward ticket home from London.  At the Vienna Airport, if you are leaving the EU, there are certain gates for that located beyond passport control.  But until then, there is lots of shopping and the airline lounges.  Security is done at the gate, which has the disadvantage that if you buy fluids, I don't think you can take them through security.  I used the nice Austrian Airlines lounge to grab some lunch, shopped a little, and then headed through passport control and security to my gate.  Once you pass through security, you are stuck inside your gate area.  Unlike the inbound flight, we were served a hot chicken panini on the flight, and after two hours, we arrived in London on schedule.  I didn't think immigration at Heathrow would be busy in the early afternoon, but it was, and no Fast Track access.  So it took awhile to get through, even though I just beat out a large school group joining the queue.  But I still made it through in time into London to pay a visit to a dessert bar and then see an early evening show (thank you 50%-off Heathrow Express advanced purchase ticket) before my morning departure back home.