Seven weeks after completing my two-week hotel quarantine, imposed after returning from the United States, I find myself staying again in a hotel. This time, however, the stay is voluntary.
In March, when cases in Bangkok were still low but the tourism industry was suffering from borders being shut, hotels promoted special offers to spur domestic tourism. At one travel fair, I purchased vouchers for four different hotels, with expiration dates through the end of September. Tawn and I figured if we couldn’t travel abroad, at least we could get away at home.
In the months that followed, the delta variant arrived and COVID-19 cases in Thailand spiked to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic. Restaurants, gyms, and swimming pools closed and getting away to a hotel seemed pointless. Expiration dates for some of the vouchers were extended but it started to look like we might not get an opportunity to use them.
Thankfully, cases have subsided a bit although are still much higher than they should be. Bowing to pressure from the business lobby, the Thai government has eased restrictions on restaurant dining. So, we decided this weekend would be a good time to use a voucher for a two-night stay at the Hyatt Regency on Sukhumvit Road.
Gyms and pools are still closed, so the hotel requires you to reserve a one-hour slot when these facilities are available for your exclusive use. We checked in Friday afternoon and used the gym for an hour before dinner. It is all very quiet and, to save costs, the air conditioning in the gym is off.
For dinner, we visited the Thai restaurant on property. The staff provided excellent service and great hospitality – and the tables were far apart, making the experience feel quite safe for diners. Plus the ambient music was kept at a reasonable volume, making it much more to my liking as I have reached a point where too much “atmosphere” makes it too difficult to hear the dinner conversation!
The menu is crafted by chef Vichit Mukkura whose one-star Michelin restaurant Khao is located on nearby Ekkamai Road. The presentation was pretty although several of the dishes tasted under-seasoned. The massaman curry was fantastic, though, and full of flavor. With the curfew still in place, staff took last orders at 7:30 and by 8:00 our dinner was winding down.
We will stay for two nights, a bit of a break from our routine. And in doing so, are helping to stimulate the economy a bit, which is sorely needed. The government was indicating that by October 1, more parts of Thailand (including Bangkok) would open to fully-vaccinated tourists without requiring 14-day quarantines. And then last week, they pushed the date back to November 1. Vaccination rates are increasing steadily but are still not at the levels needed to safely open.
At the same time, the business lobby – especially the hospitality sector – is understandably furious at the government for continuing to move the goal posts. Foreign tourists plan in advance – no spontaneous overseas travel – and will by shy to plan travel to Thailand if they feel that there is too much uncertainty. I can’t blame them! I wouldn’t recommend planning a trip to Thailand anytime before the end of the year as there is no telling how things will change.
That said, we are planning a trip overseas for the holidays, gambling that by the time we return, restrictions will have been lifted. We shall see how our gamble plays out.
While my trip back to the US ended a month ago, I haven’t properly taken the time to reflect on the trip and what it meant to me. It was a short trip – just over two weeks – but it was one of the most meaningful trips I have taken. Was it because of being away for almost two years, or because of the number of people I was able to see, or just because as I get older I am more appreciative? I cannot say. But it was a good trip.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the trip was spending time with my grandparents. My grandmother turned 101 this springtime and my grandfather hit the same milestone while I was in town. We had planned a famliy reunion last summer but of course that had to be cancelled. This year, though, everyone was fully vaccinated and it felt worth the risk to make a visit.
They have been inspirations and role models. A video I made for their 90th birthdays captured bits of the story how they met, which is a wonderful story similar to the story of so many people of their generation: a soldier meets a girl at a USO dance and they marry before he is sent overseas. In their 78 years of marriage, they have weathered thick and thin and have maintained consistency of faith and values while being open-minded and always learning.
While there, I had an interesting conversation with them, asking them about how the way they think about their lives and mortality has changed as they get closer to the end of their lives. Their candid and thoughtful answers could be summarized as, live your life as well as you can, be grateful for all you have, and focus on the present rather than the future.
While there, my grandmother said that she wanted to swim again. She was a competitive swimmer in her youth and continued to swim her entire life, up until about seven years ago when she suffered a fall. In fact, she had overseen the Red Cross swimming program in her county for many years and countless hundreds of children learned to swim thanks in part to her instruction.
My aunt loaned her a swimsuit, cap, and goggles and I drove my grandmother over to the pool and my aunt’s housing complex. It was a sunny day and the pool was warm as my grandmother took off her robe and eased her way into the water. And in no time she was swimming laps, especially enjoying the backstroke which she does so gracefully. She did complain afterwards that she wasn’t used to the added buoancy of the salt water – she is famliar with chlorinated water! – but otherwise enjoyed the experience.
Another lesson to learn: don’t give up on the things you love.
While last year’s family reunion was cancelled, another one informally happened this year. All of my cousins bar one arranged to be back, overlapping the weekend before my grandfather’s birthday. They brought their spouses and children with them, with just a few exceptions, and all of my aunts and uncles were there, too. So we had the chance to see nearly everyone and spend good time together.
I am the oldest of my cousins and as I see them grow (and as I see their children grow!), I am increasingly aware of the passage of time and feel a sense of responsibility to collect the stories and keep the connections strong between our generation. If I will not have children of my own, then perhaps what I can bequeath to the next generation is the legacy and history of our family. I work on collecting the stories and memories and look for a good way to share them.
This trip was also the opportunity to stay with my parents in their new home. Some fifty-plus years after leaving the Kansas City area for the San Francisco Bay Area, and then detouring to Indiana some 25 years ago, they have recently moved back to Kansas City. They are just settling in, still unpacking and setting things up.
What is interesting is how the dynamic has changed. Every time I visited Kansas City, they would travel over from Indianapolis. So when I was seeing them, they were also visitors. Now, they live there. I can visit them in their home. It is a different experience and will be interesting to see how this makes visits feel over the coming years. It will certainly be easier to have the family all in one place!
I was also fortunate that on my last evening there, an old Xangan friend, Andy Yang, drove down from Omaha to visit. When Tawn and I married in Council Bluffs, Iowa a dozen years ago (across the river from Omaha), we needed a witness for the marriage license. While we had never met in person, Andy offered to be the witness and invited Tawn and me to stay with him and his now-wife, Sugi, at their place. They have been great friends all these years and have become close to our family. I really appreciate him coming down to see me and love that friendships that came from the days of my Xanga blog have grown such deep roots over time.
There is more from the trip I will write about, but that is the Kansas City portion.
In June, I wrote a post detailing how I decided to fly business class home to the US in July. In this post, I will follow up and share how the experience was – and how I feel about the decision. Hopefully, I will also create a video or two for my YouTube channel. But in the meantime, here’s a start:
My flight departed Bangkok at 7:00 am. I arrived about 5:15 am, giving myself a bit more time than I might otherwise have needed because there is paperwork you need to provide before flying, like a COVID-19 PCR test. The check-in turned out to be quite smooth and security and immigration were, too, because nobody is flying.
The shops were mostly closed and many were boarded up. Those that were open had forelorn employees standing around, looking bored. I walked the long and gloomy concourse to the only THAI Airways lounge that was open, a small, recently rennovated one on concourse E. There were only two other people in the lounge. Food options were limited and all pre-packaged.
About boarding time, I proceeded to gate F5 where I found my ride, an All-Nippon Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner in Star Alliance livery. There were perhaps 40 passengers on this 246-seat aircraft, so boarding was quick. To help minimize passenger contact, ANA has changed their boarding zone so, regardless of your status or the cabin you are traveling in, they board from the back of the plane to the front.
All-Nippon is a Japanese airline and their onboard experience is distinctly Japanese. The safety video features characters in Kabuki makeup and costumes and is interlaced with illustrations done in the style of traditional airline safety cards but with Japanese characters. Here is the illustration for the importance of not wearing high-heel shoes (or okobo!) when evacuating the aircraft. You might tear the slide. These touches make the experience really special – you feel like you’ve arrived in Japan even before you have left.
We had an on-time departure from runway 1L, heading south over the rice paddies and factories of Samut Prakan province and then turning north towards Hong Kong as we climbed into the cloudy morning skies. I always enjoy flying, but flying early in the morning fills me with a feeling of possibility, like I am embarking on a grand adventure.
I was traveling in ANA’s staggered business class that is technically “old”, because ANA has launched a new product called “The Room” that is even snazzier. This business class that you see was introduced in early 2010. While it is more than a decade old, it really is still a very comfortable and private way to fly. There are two critiques of the layout:
First, they seats are very cubicle-like. A lot of people who fly business class like this layout because it gives you a lot of privacy. And, certainly, during this pandemic it is preferntial to be in a layout that shields you from others. But this layout looks quite boxy and doesn’t quite appeal to me.
Second, there are no adjacent seats. Often, the center seats on some business classes will alternate with two seats close together and, in the next row, two seats far apart. These adjacent seats are great when traveling with someone else. ANA didn’t design their old business class for that. However, the new arrangement will feature this.
Overall, the seat was very comfortable. It offered good storage, reclined into a comfortable relaxation position, and when laying fully flat it made for a comfortable bed. The footwell, in particular, is large enough in all seats that you can sleep on your side and still have room for your feet. The bed comes with a mattress cover, duvet, and a substantial pillow. I was able to sleep well and on my 12-hour return from Chicago to Tokyo, slept eight hours.
The above picture is on the Boeing 777-300er I flew returning from Chicago to Tokyo. It had a few small differences from the 787-9 I was on from Bangkok to Tokyo and return, but you would be hard-pressed to notice them. The tray table mechanism is larger and extends from underneath the monitor in the 777 instead of swinging out from underneath the console next to you. Also, the 777 has a small storage box on the wall to the side of your seat. The seats and comfort were quite similar, though, and the service was the same.
You can also see how lightly loaded the cabin was. On my flight from Bangkok to Tokyo, I was the only person in a 12-person cabin.
ANA has a good reputation for catering. Since it was a morning flight, I opted for the western meal instead of the Japanese option. This may seem foolish, since Japanese food should be the obvious choice! But I saved my Japanese food for my flight out of Tokyo, figuring it would be better there. The food was generous in portion size and tasty enough, although nothing outstanding. With the pandemic, instead of serving food from carts or bringing individual dishses and laying them out on the tablecloth, all your food is served on one tray and plastic or foil covers are on every dish.
The flight to Tokyo lasted about five hours. I slept about two hours on the flight, looked out the window, and watched some Netflix on my iPad. The in-flight entertainment system has a large screen and is responsive. The selection of shows is okay but not as extensive as on some airlines. Since I brought my own device, I just used it instead. We landed in Tokyo Narita Airport about 3:00 pm. Above, a view of the Boeing 787-9 I flew from Bangkok, seen parked at Tokyo Narita Airport. This is really an elegant and comfortable plane!
The conclusion about ANA on this first flight, was that the seats were very comfortable, the food was decent, and the service was spectacular. The flight attendants were friendly, attentive, and organized. They knew from the itinerary that I was continuing on to San Francisco, so they packed me a special goodie bag with lots of ammenity items, some souvenir ANA postcards, and two special items shown in the picture above.
The first was a hand-written note that was personalized, talked about a festival that was going on, and referenced my trip to San Francisco. This was such a great touch. Japan has a culture of aviation enthusiasts, so they also included a postcard (on the right) which provided information about the flight such as plane number, plane type, flight level, etc. Again, these are details that go above and beyond the basic expectations and leave me feeling like ANA is a great way to fly.
I had a two-hour layover between flights. Narita was not very busy. Many shops were closed and it was just a shadow of what I usually see when transiting there. I decided to go to the lounge. ANA usually has three lounges in Narita and United Airlines has one. During the pandemic, only one ANA lounge was open and, in fact, they used only the First Class side of their lounge.
The lounge was fairly crowded and attendants were circulating like sharks, checking for mask use when people were not eating or drinking, picking up trays and used dishes, and keeping things in good order. All the foods were pre-packaged but the hot food bar, where you can order noodles or rice and curry, was open. I enjoyed a nice bowl of soba noodles with pork katsu and a glass of draft beer. The views of the tarmac are spectacular and the skies were blue and the grass verdant green. I could have spent all day watching the planes.
All too soon, I had to walk to sattelite four, where United operates its flights. In normal times, they have at least one daily flight to Newark, Washington D.C., Houston, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Honolulu, and Guam – and usually two flights to some of the cities. This day, it was down to three flights: Guam, Los Angeles, and my flight to San Francisco. Today’s flight was operated by a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Behind my San Francisco flight was the one of Los Angeles, which left about 30 minutes earlier.
I chose this flight specifically because I wanted to try United’s Polaris business class. United introduced Polaris in 2016 but to this date, some of their long-haul fleet still has not been reconfigured. Specifcially, that Los Angeles flight, which I was rebooked on by United, uses an older 2-2-2 configuration which means if you sit at a window seat, you do not have direct aisle access. You will note that the overall look and feel is similar to ANA’s business class and the blue color scheme is similar. One advantage is that alternating rows of middle seats are placed closer together, perfect for couples.
The seats themselves are thoughtfully designed and similar in space and comfort to the older ANA seats. The Saks Fifth Avenue bedding that you see in the above photo had been modified a bit for my flight. The lightweight blanket was gone, but there were still two sizes of pillos and a duvet. The pajama service, which ostentisbly is available on longer flights, was not available on mine – but that may be because it is only a nine-hour flight.
The seats recline to fully flat and are comfortable. I did find the shoulder space to be a bit narrower than on ANA and I would sometimes run into the long armrest that stretches below the windows. The foot wells can be a narrow in some rows. The bulkhead seats, of which I chose one, have more space and were sufficiently large. I was able to sleep about five hours on the almost nine-hour flight.
Inflight service was not as good as on ANA. There were three flight attendants serving business class, which was about one-quarter full. One of them was brusque and not at all welcoming. The other two were a bit friendlier but just seemed disorganized and forgetful. I had to repeat requests for things and after ordering, one flight attendant told me I couldn’t have my first choice for entree while the other then brought me by first choice. But when I asked about the red wines, one flight attendant brought all three bottles so I could see them, which was a nice touch.
In terms of food, United’s catering is such a disappointment. For dinner, I chose what was ostensibly a filet of beef. It was such a sad, beige looking thing. And the baked side dish, some sort of a truffle-flavored polenta or something, was crusty and forgettable. The roasted beets were nice, because I love beets. The salad was limp and the dessert was some sort of a prepackaged brownie. Just underwhelming. Like ANA, everything was served on a single tray and all the items had plastic or foil covers.
For breakfast, I chose the Japanese option, figuring we had departed Japan so this might be okay. The dish was a tiny piece of mackerel served with the saddest steamed vegetables and a gloppy, sweet sauce. And the muffin, which I hope was meant to be green tea flavored, was this unappetizing greenish color.
The one thing I appreciate is that they didn’t serve breakfast until about an hour before landing. Many airlines will start their pre-landing meal in business class 90-120 minutes before landing, which interrupts your sleep. Especially because they were serving everything on a single tray, dinner was done early and breakfast could be served late, giving passengers more time to rest.
United’s entertainment system is quite a bit better than ANA’s, though. The screen is brighter and easier to see and the selection of entertainment is extensive. If you need to be distracted (which you will be because of the food!), United does that well.
The flight was smooth and not long after breakfast, we broke through the coastal fog to land in San Francisco. We parked at the international terminal and I was the first person to the baggage claim belt, which was completely desserted. Thankfully, the baggage arrived quickly and my bags were among the first off. If you are curious, immigration was very quick and nobody inquired at all about COVID, although I had shown my COVID test results when checking in at Bangkok and again at the gate in Tokyo.
The international flights both had few passengers and a lot of personal room. This changed for the domestic flights, where both my flight to Denver and the onward flight to Kansas City were completely full. Thankfully, I was in business class for these flights, too, so at least wasn’t completely squeezed in.
The domestic flights were both delayed, the first one by almost an hour with no clear explanation given. And when we landed in Denver, we waited another 15 minutes for our gate to free up, which was especially frustrating as many passengers had very tight connections. I did make it to Kansas City only about 45 minutes late, though, and my parents picked me up shortly after.
So, the question is, was it worth it to fly business class? The two international flights had a premium economy cabin, so I could have saved some money and had seats equivalent to domestic first class. Overall, having more room and more cubicle-like space during this pandemic, made me feel safer. And being able to sleep on the flights seemed to help with my jet lag: I really did not suffer any considerable jet lag on this trip. I would not have slept much, or very well, in premium economy or regular economy.
What I don’t think was worth it, was flying with United. I’m a former United employee and really want the company to succeed, but I was disappointed with the experience – especially domestically. I overheard three of the flight attendant for my San Francisco to Denver flight discussing that this was their first flight back from furlough. On none of my United flights, did I encounter any employees (on the ground or in the air) that really convinced me they genuinely appreciated my business. Compare this to ANA, where I was treated as a unique person, and I think I would try to avoid United as best I can in the future.
Let me start by making clear how grateful and privileged I am to have the opportunity to fly home in business class next month. Everything else that follows in this post is just an exploration of my thought process whether to fly in business class and, once I decided to, decided which airline and routing to fly. (And I’m going to go into serious aviation nerd mode, which maybe only Matt will appreciate fully. Sorry in advance!)
I am not yet at a point in my life where buying transcontinental business class tickets is an affordable option. This is my first time buying a business class ticket out of pocket and I made the decision to do so using the following rationale and rationalizations.
Safety. While I know that air quality in an airplane is very high, I am still concerned about being in close quarters for up to a dozen hours with other people. Traveling in business class would put me in a less densely packed cabin and, with some airlines offering more cubicle-like seats, hopefully a greater degree of protection from fellow passengers.
Yes, I do realize that international flights have very light loads, but that doesn’t mean the flights I will travel on will have light loads. And, as I saw since booking, the airlines have rejiggered their schedules to consolidate passengers onto fewer flights. (When I booked, United was selling tickets for six flights from Tokyo Narita to their US hubs. Four weeks before departure, it is down to two flights and my booking has been changed two times.)
Benefit of solo travel. Unfortunately, Tawn will not join me on this flight. Since there is only one of us flying, the budgetary impact is half and it feels a bit easier to justify spending a bit more.
Random rationalizations. We haven’t flown in nearly a year and a half. I haven’t been back to see my family in even longer. I turned fifty last year and had wanted to treat myself to a business class flight. Airfares are a good bit lower than they historically have been so now is a good time to splurge. See? There are plenty of rationalizations to supplement my rationale!
“So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
Once I decided to fly business class, I searched for options using the following criteria:
Star Alliance. If I was going to be shelling money out of my own pocket for this experience, I want to make sure I earn miles. My mileage program of choice is with Aegean Airlines, a member of Star Alliance. This means that, given the limited number of airlines flying into Bangkok at this time, my choices were All-Nippon Airways + United (they operate a joint venture across the Pacific), EVA Air, Singapore Airlines, Asiana, Turkish, or Lufthansa Group (Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss).
Single ticket to my destination. I prefer to book directly through the airline’s website rather than through a third party. This way, if I have problems, the airline has the greatest incentive to fix them. EVA, Asiana and Singapore could only book me to their US destinations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chicago. I would have to book the connecting leg to Kansas City myself. This was an unacceptable complication during this pandemic, when schedules and circumstances can change with little notice.
Flying in a cubicle-like business class. Some airlines use more open (and older) business class seating arrangements where the seats are in pairs arranged 2-2-2 with aisles in between. I actually quite like this way of flying, especially when traveling with Tawn. But in this pandemic era, I want to be in more individual, “cubicle” style seats where I don’t have to see, interact with, or step over a seat mate when getting into and out of my seat. Lufthansa, Turkish, and United operate some or all of their fleet with a 2-2-2 layout (or, in the case of Turkish on some planes, a 2-3-2 arrangement as pictured above!)
Maximizing flying time. This may seem crazy, but if I’m going to pay for the business class experience, I want to get the most time I can to enjoy it. And this isn’t just a value-for-money proposition but also a sleep proposition. If you are flying a shorter flight like Tokyo to Seattle (just about 8 hours) you won’t have as much time to rest as you would on a flight like Hong Kong to Chicago (about 11 hours). With lie-flat seats a norm in business class, I want to opportunity to get at least six solid hours of sleep, to help minimize jet lag. This means I wanted flights across the ocean at least 10 hours long.
Price. Despite my rationalizations, budget was still a consideration. There was more than a US$1,000 difference between the least expensive business class fares offered by the different airlines and the prices varied quite a bit between day, exact routing, and even when I searched. Most tickets were coming in around US$3,500 – $4,000, which was feeling a bit rich for my wallet. Finally, I found one that met my criteria for only US$2,098.
After several weeks of comparing options, I settled on a ticket purchased from United Airlines, which includes multiple segments flown by All-Nippon Airways. United and ANA are joint-venture partners on their entire trans-Pacific flying plus many connecting routes. This “metal-neutral” arrangement means they are able to coordinate all aspects of flying, pricing, and selling and share the costs and revenues as if they were a single airline for those routes.
I liked this itinerary because it would feature United’s new Polaris business class seat from Tokyo to Newark and All Nippon’s slightly older business class seat from Chicago to Tokyo, which both are well reviewed and offer nice private cubicles. Additionally, the long trans-Pacific legs in both directions meant time to enjoy the meal service and entertainment, while also getting a solid six-plus hours of sleep in. I was also excited to fly through Tokyo Haneda on the return, an airport I have never visited.
Unfortunately, it turns out I forgot an important criterion when booking my flights:
Approval by Thai authorities. To enter Thailand now, you need the local Thai embassy to issue a COE (certificate of entry) and this includes flying only on currently approved inbound flights. All-Nippon was selling the flight from Tokyo Haneda to Bangkok but it was not yet on the Thai government’s list of approved flights. Sticking with this booking would mean taking the risk that Thai authorities would approve the flight at a later date. And, if they didn’t, I would have to change the schedule, with the chance of a penalty fee or fare increase. After the Thai embassy initially rejected my COE application, I contacted United to make a change in the return schedule. Thankfully, there was no cost to do this.
The recurring LAX change
United actively reviews and optimizes its schedule, sending regular emails notifying you of changes to your booking. Some of these are minor – a flight departs a few minutes earlier or later, or the flight now has a different number and is operated by a different United Express carrier.
But as the departure date grew closer, United started paring back its trans-Pacific flights. This is not a surprise as demand for international travel has remained much lower than for United States domestic travel, which has rebounded in the past few weeks as vaccination rates increase and infection rates plummet.
My first notification was that I had been rerouted through Los Angeles on my outbound trip, connecting to Kansas City by overflying to Chicago and then backtracking. This was not okay because it didn’t meet two of my criteria: the flight to Los Angeles comes in well shy of 10 hours and it is flown by aircraft with United’s older business class configuration, which features 2-2-2 seating. If I was going to fly, I was going to try out the new product.
Thankfully, a call to United reservations fixed that. With no charge, they put me on the Tokyo to Houston flight, a nice 12 hour, 10 minute flight on a Boeing 777-200 featuring the new Polaris business class. Plus, they could connect me from Houston to Kansas City nonstop.
A few weeks later, I received a second notification. The Houston flight was now cancelled and I was again routed through Los Angeles, although this time connecting to Kansas City through Denver instead of through Chicago. Los Angeles again?!
At this point, I thought that maybe I would have to accept my fate and just fly into Los Angeles. It is a nice enough airport. The United Club has an outdoor terrace with a view of the airplanes. But I wasn’t happy about not flying their new business class product. I went to the United website to see what other flights they were operating from Tokyo.
After a bit of research I realized that the flight to San Francisco was operated with the new business class product. Even though the flight is about a half-hour shorter than Los Angeles, I figured I would trade off a bit of eating or entertainment time, to enjoy the new Polaris product. Another call to United reservations fixed the booking.
So, three weeks before departure, this is what my itinerary looks like. We shall see whether United changes it again. Looking at the number of seats already selected for the flight to San Francisco, it looks like business class may be at least one-third full, so unlikely they will cancel that flight. What I find especially interesting, is that there hasn’t been any changes to the return booking. This makes me think that All Nippon is more disciplined (or less agile) in their approach to scheduling.
I’m excited about this itinerary. It will be a treat (and a privilege) to be able to try the business class products, to pamper myself a bit, and to hopefully be a bit more protected from the risk of falling ill while flying. I end up arriving two hours earlier into Kansas City, which I know will be appreciated by whoever picks me up from the airport! The chance to fly through San Francisco is a treat, too. It’s my hometown airport for the first 30+ years of my life, I haven’t been there in a few years. My only regret is that there isn’t enough time to visit anyone!
Thanks for indulging me as I gush about the experience. I realize it is nerdier than about 99.99% of the population will appreciate. But I’m looking forward to the trip and really am enjoying the planning aspect as much (maybe more) than the actual travel aspect.
In May 2019, we stopped for three nights in Munich en route to a holiday in Greece. Three nights seems about right for this city of 1.5 million. Below are some highlights from the visit. You are welcome to use my Google map, which has these spots and additional suggestions.
Some sixty percent of old Munich was destroyed by United States and Allied bombing in World War II. Unlike many cities, which rebuilt in a more modern style, the people of Munich decided to rebuild the city much as it had been. Thanks to this, the Aldstadt (old city) is charming and fun to explore. Thanks to a later decision (in the 1970s, I think) to pedestrianize many parts of the Aldstadt, it is also easy to explore.
I had heard about the beer gardens and, sure enough, they are everywhere. Many operate only when the weather is decent. Thankfully, Munich has some of Germany’s sunniest weather! The good news is, you are allowed in most cases to bring your own food so long as you buy your drinks from the operator of the beer garden. While I’m not a big beer drinker, something about being there makes a nice Heffeweissen the perfect drink on a sunny day. Tables are communal, which adds to the fun.
Most of what Americans know about German culture comes from Bavaria. This is especially true when it comes to food. It is generally a heavy, pork-oriented cuisine. That said, there are actually plenty of ways to eat lightly. Food is also reasonably priced, so you can eat well without breaking the bank. Some places we tried and enjoyed – additional recommendations in the Google Map.
Beim Sedlmyr – the real deal, a friendly and homey place to eat Bavarian food in the center of the Aldstadt.
Wirsthaus Zur Brez’n – this is a slightly more updated version of Bavarian food. Still recognizable as the original thing but with a bit more sophistication. The picture above came from our dinner at the Wirsthaus.
Cafe Glockenspiel – perched on the fifth floor overlooking the city hall and main square, this is a good place for brunch or lunch and it has a nice view of the rooftops and the top-of-the-hour playing of the mechanical glockenspiel in the clock tower across the square.
Viktualienmarkt – a daily food market and a square in the center of the Aldstadt, basically a farmer’s market with lots of local specialties ready to eat
You’ll notice that I haven’t included Munich’s most famous spot, the Hofbrauhaus, for which the song “In Munchen Stadt Ein Hofbrauhaus” was written. The guidebooks say it is good fun. Maybe so. I’d rather not deal with the madness.
There is some interesting shopping available in Munich. The Manufactum Warenhaus, pictured above, is a mash-up of Eddie Bauer, Restoration Hardware, Dean and Deluca and Williams Sonoma. You could easily spend an hour or more browsing and will probably buy something.
Next door is Dallmayr Delikatessenhaus, a grand food emporium that serves both fresh food and canned goods and confectionaries. Think the Bon Marche in Paris or Harrod’s Food Hall in London. Great place to buy some food for a picnic or a bar of Bavarian chocolate to take home.
Soda Munich is a great magazine and book store with unique and artsy magazines from around the world and coffee table and art books.
Roeckl makes leather accessories, especially famous for their driving gloves. Several locations throughout town.
There are many historic places to visit. One that is particularly over-the-top is the Munich Residenz, the former royal palace of the Wittelsbach monarchs of Bavaria. The dining hall is pictured above. Lots of gilt and gaudiness, an example of why monarchy collapsed under its own weight but still fascinating to see.
Munich has several good art museums and the BMW Welt is an automotive museum dedicated to the hometown marque.
As mentioned, Munich is Germany’s sunniest city and there is a very large and lovely English Gardens in town. There are plenty of places to stroll, bicycle, etc. but one thing worth checking is the surfing that takes place at a somewhat naturally formed continuous wave near the park’s entrance.
Munich Airport is one of the most logical, clean and well-organized in the world. Trains to the city center run frequently and inexpensively. The main train station is called München Hauptbahnhof, a short walk from the Aldstadt.
You can get around the Aldstadt easily on foot. The transit system works easily and the ticket-selling machines are self-explanatory. You can also use Uber.
We stayed at the Mercure City Center hotel just a block from the Hauptbanhof and found it very convenient as most of the transit lines connect through there and much of the Aldstadt is a 10-minute walk away. There are also plenty of hotels inside the Aldstadt.
Hope you enjoy your trip to Munich. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments.
Supposedly these two weeks, the last of 2018 and the first of 2019, are my holiday. Not one for just sleeping all day or lying on a beach, I’m spending a fair amount of time working on different personal projects, one of which is updating my blog and website.
One of the areas I haven’t yet updated is about our trip to Italy this autumn. The entry about Austria is finished but the entries about Italy still needs to be written. Let’s see if I can get that finished in the coming week.
Italy is such a fascinating place to visit. While there are plenty of more places I need to visit in Europe, it is my favorite thus far. Italy seems to strike the balance: it has much that is modern and sophisticated while maintaining some rough edges and lots of history. The people are warm and welcoming, distinct in their culture while happy to share it with you. The food is satisfying but not fussy. People seem to have a deep enjoyment of life.
We began our trip in Firenze (Florence) for two nights, visiting my cousin and his family. We then traveled south to the hillside of ancient Matera, stopping in Bari on the way to three nights in Ostuni in Puglia – the “heel” in the boot of Italy. The southern part of Italy makes for a nice contrast with the larger, more popular cities such as Firenze and Milano. (I haven’t been to Rome.) The south has most of the things I like about Italy but without many of the things I do not. In short, it is Italy without the onslaught of tourists!
Two weeks ago, I returned from an 18-day trip to Europe, a combination of work and relaxation. While I didn’t plan it to be this complicated, it ended up being a five country, eight city itinerary. In the coming days and weeks, I will write more details about the trip and update the pages on my website with restaurants and recommendations.
London was a sneaky twenty-three hour layover I managed to build in unexpectedly. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet friends but did get a nice walk in along the River Thames on a blustery Autumn morning and once the sun emerged stopped by the Spitalfields Market for excellent shengjianbao.
Barcelona was my second stop, a week to deliver training (a bit of a fudge to my previous role as technically I am not longer heading the leadership development organization at DKSH). This was my second trip to Barcelona and I had a bit more opportunity to explore than last time, when I traveled with my parents and husband. Lots of good food on this trip.
Italy was a return some 17 years after my first visit. We went to Firenze to see my cousin and his family, Matera to see the mysterious and beautiful city of caves, and Ostuni to explore the charm of the Puglia region – the “heel” of Italy’s “boot”. This trip reminded me what the quality of life is so high in Italy: simple food, nice weather, beautiful views and friendly people.
Vienna was a a first-time visit for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect and ended up charmed by the city. It is a bit of a set piece for some European imperial costume drama, at least as far as buildings go. This is a city and country I would like to explore further.
Zurich was a return visit for work. In fact, I stopped into the city three times on this trip, enjoying the convenient train system to pop into the city during my layovers and then concluding with a two-night stay for work. This time I was able to explore a bit further and enjoyed some good food and friendly company.
This trip provided some neat random connections, running into people I had not expected to see and striking up conversations with strangers who happened to have connections with me in different random ways. It reminds me that this is a very small world and that traveling it helps us appreciate that which is different and that which is universal.
This is the first of two reports about premium economy experiences. For longer-haul flying, I am reaching a point where being crammed into economy is painful but business class is unaffordable. The compromise is to pay a bit extra for premium economy which is sometimes quite a good value. In this report, I cover a round trip between Bangkok and Lisbon (returning from Barcelona) on Lufthansa made in October 2016.
Lufthansa adjusts the capacity on the Bangkok-Frankfurt route throughout the year to match demand, everything from a 509-seat Airbus A380 to a 251-seat Airbus A340-300, which was used both directions on my trip.
The Airbus A340 is a comfortable widebody plane but the type was introduced in 1991 so it is not the latest technology. The normal economy class configuration is 2-4-2.
The premium economy cabin, which is located between the business class and economy cabins, has only 28 seats, arranged 2-3-2. These seats are 18″ wide and have between 38-39″ of pitch, the distance from one point on the seat to the same point on the next row.
Leg room is quite reasonable although when the person in front of you reclines, you will still find it difficult to get out unless the person in the aisle seat gets up. There are plenty of storage spaces for items and there is a foot rest on the seat in front of you. Bulkhead seats instead have a leg rest that extends from the seat cushion.
One feature of these seats is that there are two armrests for each passenger so no fighting for personal space. This is a huge advantage over regular economy.
Large touch-screen monitors are available at each seat. The image is bright and the responsiveness of the system is good.
The seats are comfortable although a bit firm. After a few hours, I ended up sitting on my pillow to provide extra padding. Recline is quite deep but I still find it difficult to get any meaningful sleep. On the outbound flight, I probably slept about four hours total. On the return flight, less than two.
As a comparison, here is a view of economy class mid-flight. You can see the premium economy cabins in the distance, separated only by fabric dividers hanging from the overhead bins. You will notice the monitors in economy are smaller and there is an extra seat in each row resulting in only 17″ width and narrower armrests.
Before departure, water or juice is served and menus are distributed. There is no advance meal booking beyond the usual dietary and religious meals. The selection consisted of two main courses. For these flights, each approximately 12 hours, there is a main meal and then a breakfast closer to arrival.
After reaching cruising altitude, a drink service commenced. There was a wide selection of beverages and premium economy includes sparkling wine and a premium beer.
The outbound dinner was a choice of pork Panaeng curry or pan-seared veal sausages with onion sauce, sauerkraut and mashed potato. I chose the latter. It came with an appetizer of coleslaw with smoked chicken breast and a dessert of apple strudel with vanilla sauce.
Before landing in Frankfurt, a breakfast of cheddar cheese omelette with Lyonnaise potato, ratatouille and tomato with fresh fruit was served. There was no other choice.
For the flight from Frankfurt back to Bangkok, we had a choice of beef goulash with carrot zucchini stew and potato leek mash (which I chose) or tomato mozzarella fiorelli with basil cream sauce and tomato concasse. The appetizer was a seasonal salad with pumpkin slices and Italian dressing. The dessert was mango pie with creme fraiche.
Breakfast before landing in Bangkok was scrambled egg with cheddar cheese accompanied by diced chicken breast, Chinese vegetables (which seemed to be missing) and potato wedges with a dessert of vanilla curd cream with blueberries.
Overall, the food quality was good and the quantity was sufficient. The food is served on ceramic dishes with metal cutlery and glass stemware, which creates a nicer impression.
During the flight, light refreshments (sandwiches, fruits, pretzels, candy bars) were available for snacking.
Shortly before landing, small chocolates were distributed throughout the cabin. Service from the flight attendants was friendly but efficient. It was notable that effort was made to complete the first meal service quickly, presumably so passengers could go to sleep as both flights are overnight.
The inflight entertainment system worked well and has many options. By the return flight, I did feel like I was running out of things that piqued my interest. Thankfully, the seats have USB and power ports, so I was able to pull out my laptop and work and use my iPad to read and watch shows.
The system does have a nice maps feature that shows computer-generated views from the tail and the cockpit of the plane. This gives a perspective of what the outside world looks like although it is misleading because the above pictures of our final approach into Frankfurt shows daylight but it was in fact before sunrise.
Premium economy does not come with lounge access but as I have “gold” status with one of the Star Alliance carriers, I was eligible to use the lounge. In Bangkok, I was able to use the main THAI Airways lounge. Other lounges closed too early to use as the Lufthansa flight departs after midnight.
In Frankfurt, I was able to use the Senator lounges, which are very modern, have a huge selection of food and drink, and offer showers for transiting passengers.
I particularly liked the 2-3-2 layout in the plane. The middle seat next to me with empty both ways, giving me even more space. The food was tasty and good quality. And the lounge in Frankfurt was truly refreshing. Connecting through Frankfurt is convenient and results in efficient travel times to Europe from Bangkok.
The seat cushions were a bit firm for my tastes (although I find this on a lot of planes), the selection of inflight entertainment was a bit uninspired and Frankfurt is not the most pleasant airport to connect through as it is drab and not particularly intuitive to navigate.
I managed to get an attractive price for this flight, only about US$ 1,400 round-trip. The usual premium economy price is closer to US$ 1,800. The extra space and increased comfort made the trip much less taxing and, for the money, was a good value. Lufthansa’s premium economy would be worth taking for future trips.
There is perhaps no dish more French than the soufflé. And one of the best places to have a soufflé at a reasonable price in Paris is Le Soufflé, an elegant dining room located a short walk from the Louvre and Tuileries Garden.
We found Le Soufflé quite by accident, intending to have lunch at a recommended Asian restaurant just a few doors away. They were full, however, and we popped in at the upscale-looking Le Soufflé based on the charming exterior and the Zagat and other stickers posted by the front door.
The young man greeting us was friendly and when we explained we had not reserved, he looked around the room and told us that if we could return in twenty minutes, he would have a table for us. After a short stroll around the block, we returned and were rewarded with a generously-sized table in the middle of the room.
With a clientele that seems mostly made up of local office workers and older-school establishment types, I felt a little self-conscious. (“Look, the American!”) But the friendly and diverse staff made us feel welcome. In fact, the restaurant reminds me a bit of Cafe Jacqueline in San Francisco, in that the staff can seem a bit stern from the outside but they take good care of their guests.
The menu is relatively simple with a limited selection of soups and salads, a selection of savory soufflés and a selection of sweet soufflés. We ordered a set that included a salad and two soufflés.
The soufflés (mine with a black olive tapenade and Tawn’s with smoked salmon) arrive relatively quickly. You sense that they must be preparing the choux base in advance and then folding in freshly-whipped egg whites. The size looks large, of course, impressively puffed up – but remember that a soufflé is largely air so a person can consume one relatively easily.
For dessert, I opted for a rhubarb soufflé. This is one of my favorite fruits and was just in season so it appeared on many menus. The tartness of the rhubarb cut through the richness of the soufflé and made for a pleasant end to the meal.
The set lunch including a glass of wine and a coffee to follow was only EUR 28, about US$ 32. For the quality and quantity of food, it was quite a bargain. Le Soufflé is on my must-visit list for a quintessential French experience.
36 Rue du Mont Thabor
+33 1 4260 2719
Some fifteen years after my previous trip to Paris with Tawn, we are together here again. It wasn’t a planned trip for me. He was to be here as a tag-on to a work trip to Italy. In fact, I was supposed to be in Manila this week, delivering training. However, the fates intervened, my training was cancelled, and I decided to purchase an inexpensive ticket for five nights in Paris.
Paris is different this time. I’ve lived abroad for more than a decade and have traveled much more, so am much more confident than on our first visit. That, combined with the twin miracles of Google maps and Google translate, combined with the convenience of smart phones, has made navigating so much easier.
My French, which I thought completely lost, seems to be somewhat intact. A few days of cramming with the help of the Duolingo app restored enough of the synaptic connections to allow me to communicate in French to a passable degree. What shocked me, though, was how much more English-friendly Paris has become in fifteen years.
While my experiences had never confirmed the stereotype of the rude Parisians unwilling to speak English, fifteen years ago not speaking some French was a handicap. Today, though, I found that nearly everyone was tolerant of my shaky French and both willing and able to supplement with English when need be.
The other difference I have observed is how much more diverse Paris has become. This is a city of color and it has been made all the more vibrant for it. Near our Air B-n-B rental across from Centre Pompidou, there are a number of great-smelling Middle Eastern restaurants. Asian and Asian-fusion restaurants are numerous. And the African diaspora is well-represented, too.
Funnily enough, two Parisian stereotypes were still in evidence aplenty: the horizontally-striped sailor shirts and the baguettes carried underarm on the way home at day’s end. These kept appearing with such frequency that I suspected we were victims of a ruse by central casting!
I will try to share more about the trip, along with my overnight stay in Istanbul on the way here, which was a magnificent experience.